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Of Iron Gripes
Act 8: Bruno the Younger, Lictor at the Gate of Pipes
© 2023 James LaFond
Dusk, Caesarsday, Second Day of Sepulcher
The awesome form of the battered gladiator, parried, blocked and even caught the rude missiles hurled down at him. A half dozen hair pins and darning needles, steely and pointed like the very thorns of Hell, stuck into his broad back, staining his night black and starry silver tartan tunic and vest ever more red—with crumbled brick and roof tile as well.
Little Jap tykes all about scribbled and sketched, even noting, so did the one between his boots, the curses of the Bawdy Sprites, [1] which were many, vile and as pointed as their hair pins and darning needles. The husky voice of a wench behind him, headed home from some factory floor, lusted, “If only fer a breath I coul’ be ridden by such a bull-cod stud as that, life would shine in me numb mind.”
A mighty strong Sprite, Brawny Bum, she was called, hurled an oaken step stool she kept for short paramours. This device, hurled with a strength that was storied as man-like, might have injured the gladiator, who deftly caught the think with his rod, set it down, and showmen as they all were, struck a pose with one foot up on that stool as if he knew the particulars of this Sprite’s trade.
A sharp hair pin then sprouted from that mighty thigh, just below where that half kilt brushed the trousers. [2] People were beginning to cheer for the gladiator, who handed off his steel pipe and stick to Bruno, who had forgotten how close he was to the affray, and that the gladiator had drifted his way.
The stool was now left center stage among the wrecked tiles and broken bricks. Betty Brick, known for her casting arm, for having brained a short-changing paramour who had gained the train platform, aimed at that mighty neck a vicious throw—and a mightier hand caught the brick and set it down.
Then came the Tyke, somewhat in a daze, walking from the alley, stepping over the unconscious Jap tyke and snarling up at the giant. The voice that boomed forth from the man in the helmet froze them all, “Like David upon Goliath, he comes!”
The Sprites were out of missiles it seemed.
The man then took off that dented helmet, placing it with a ceremonial flare upon that stool.
All was silence.
Tyke was stunned.
The gladiator then tore his vest and the tunic underneath into shreds, for it could not be taken off without first removing the shoulder harness hung with more medals than could be counted, scales of armor proclaiming victories and battles, of which this Scot was known to have accrued fifty and one.
Silence, if such a state could be experienced amid the din of the oncoming and breaking train, the knock of steam pipes and the bellows of the foundry, held among their small horde of spectators. The sword cuts, burns and even bullet holes that marred the broad body, had even cut away some places for that silver hair to grow, held them in ugly equipoise. For only patricians and breeding slave girls ever got this close to a naked gladiator.
The man’s face was terribly mischanced into a pitiful mug of twice normal size. On his chest hung five four-leaf clovers of greened bronze, upon brazen chains. Each petal was of crimson, worked with the various devices of the houses, nations—unto Saracen moon slivers and heathen skulls and crossbones—with but one Fate’s Cross, as the four leaf clovers were known, bearing only two medals.
The great man, a slave of God and Country it was known, then lifted off those four full metals and held them up in his manicad left hand and boomed, “I, Max Scot, called Born, sword slave of House Thrax, do, before God and Christ, in the name of Saint Michael, Protector and John the Baptist, yield these six and ten medals earned in battle, one each to you Women of Lonely Nights, and four to set up good and right your remaining tykes.”
People gasped all around.
Japs sketched and scribbled.
The whores gawked open mouthed and wide eyed as the man threw those four Fate’s Crosses, each crimson medal set within each greened bronze petal, worth a Patrician’s apartment.
The woman known as Bawd Bell, a great-breasted harlot who disdained modest dress, caught these along with the eyes of them all and promptly dropped them all between those two famed udders. For all to see.
She was speechless.
The man then boomed, above even the deafening sound of the train making its final steamy stop, “Those medals will gain you entrance to the Censorial Sands this carnival day, at noon, where I will be slain and right punished for the crimes of this day—at the hands of a better man of swords.”
The train hissed to a full stop and a conductor bawled. But even those who had come here to catch that train cared not as the brute then turned towards Tyke Pipe, who stood in stunned defiance and snarled like a rat up to a hound, “I’ll no be bought off, Sandman! What did fer my kin!!”
The man’s great shoulders, across the back of which, framed with blood dots from hair pins and needles, was branded SWORN TO DIE FOR CHRIST shrugged with a great breath.
Bruno noted that dynamic as he was, the man was old, lame and more tired than any drudgery bent factory workers.
The man drew his mighty broad dirk, a sword really, and drew off his last Fate’s Cross in his armored hand, and asked, in a stovepipe voice, “Would you yield for the gift of these,” as he dangled the bronze clover on its brass chain, “Or,” so intoned he, like a drum, “would you live and die by this cold edge?”
The lad raised his sharp, blood stained pipe with a snarl, “I’ll no yield, Sandman!”
The man then limped around the stool, passed ever so gracefully his broad short sword into that armored hand, and knelt upon his left knee, still taller by a head before the terrible little Brat of Pipes, and said with a sigh that sounded like relief, “I yield, this sword and medals, as well…” then that voice became grave, in a theatrical way, reminding Bruno of how Rodman Smith had raised his voice for the benefit of those men waiting in sparring line while he fenced with the one who held the brunt of his attention, “So long, as you pledge your life to Jesus Christ, in the name of Almighty God, as fresh sword of House Thrax.”
The lad seemed confused, as to how to proceed...and the Jap Tykes scribbled and sketched, three of them squat walking around the unlikely pair, the giant gladiator and the tiny mobster.
The gladiator pointed to his own neck behind the armored left shoulder with his right finger, “Thrust here, if you’d rather. In any case, I’d use the dirk...though you are handy with the pipe, what should rightfully be left here.”
The lad seemed to consider stabbing the man with his dastardly sharpened pipe. He then looked down absently at his bloody pipe and seemed of a sudden not to like it. He placed the pointy pipe of his gingerly on the concrete floor beneath the stool. Then, looking deeply into the eyes of the gladiator in search of something crooked there, he seemed satisfied and took the sword.
The Scot must have grinned, though they could not see his face, but a Jap sure sketched it avidly. The Great Scot stood, and Hung that Fate’s Cross over those little shoulders by looping the chain thrice. The giant then unhitched the baldric and scabbard from his girdle and expertly placed it around that tiny waist.
The lad grinned, a big toothy smile, and sheathed what on his side was a mighty sword.
Black-haired Helen, the prettiest of the lot, then bawled, “You go, Bun—ye an orphan no more!”
The whores whistled and clapped, a few even prancing and lifting leg and skirt upon their balconies.
The man then saluted to the ladies above, with the right fist to the heart and the hand then extended open and up as to Caesar’s own eagle.
The gladiator then bent and lifted his helmet and tossed it up to Brawny Bum with such a flare and a wink crossing his mangled mug that that terrible murderess whore nearly swooned as she cooed, “Max, I’m your girl. I’ll be at Censorial Sands long ‘fore noon ta pray over da fray. I’ll dip ma panties in yer hearty blood, I will!”
Max Born then turned to face the crowd at the gate, who were yet standing numb to dumb and winked at the Patrician dame who gasped, as he pointed easily at the locked gate, reminding Bruno the Younger of their silent pact.
Bruno then opened the gate inward, the little unconscious Jap sketch child all but forgotten, a pencil and pad still to hand as her mates continued their weird task.
Max then motioned for his protege to walk into the crowd first, a crowd which parted before the little fellow and his great shambling shadow, reminding Bruno to hand the big fellow his hawthorn stick. The great Brute, suddenly turned stage actor, formalized the scene with a booming voice heard far and above the call of conductors and the whistle to night work at the foundry behind them, “Make way for Minicus Thrax, Fresh Sword o’ Scots!”
And, so they did, like the Red Sea parting before Moses.
The gladiator held that medal, a two by two inch shield of steel, with a lever clip tongue held between the great right thumb and forefinger where that device would clip into the leather harness along with is 50 odd fellows to cover that leather armored shoulder in steely scale. Each scale was forged with the raised brand of the House Thrax, a basket-hilt claymore and spiked targe.
Bruno whispered far below the din of applause and the calls for “good luck, Max,” from men and “a clean death, Gladiator,” from women.
It was as if he spoke to himself among the din, but he truly hoped his words might enter that little head above the chin and gain it’s headlong owner a clue:
“Don’t whimper, Tyke,” for they all knew, could plainly see, even as the whores set to dividing the medals above, that Max Born was headed to the station cresset, where there were always hung a set of branding tongs, in case a chattel sale or unbranded recovery were to there occur. One thing was true, even in the days when Bruno the Elder was lictor, no fresh sword had ever been branded by a station cresset, not at Bell Station or any other.
-1. So named Bawdy for each was her own bawd of her own little apartment and maker even of her own dresses and nightly gowns. These whores were the very pirate captains of their kind, named Sprites after their acrobatic origins and balcony antics.
-2. Rectifying the highland kilt with the gladiatorial codpiece and the modest covering of legs in civic places, had resulted in something like wool shorts with split legs covering the thighs of the trousers, some thought, being reminiscent of ancient Italic attire, or according to other tastes of an Indian loincloth.
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