Ludi Plebeii 2761 AUC: Chariot Race - Semifinals and final
Publius Constantinus Placidus reporting from the Circus Maximus, Rome.
Did I happen to mention rain, yesterday, by any chance? Yes, sure I did – “Grayish clouds cover[ing] most of the late-autumn sky, menacing rain...” And, as it turned out not later than a quarter of an hour after the conclusion of yesterday’s quarterfinals races, rain it did. And how it did... a whole series of buckets of heavy, heavy rain pouring down from the sky, luckily washing off all of the remainders of the races themselves: dirt and sand off the chariots, blood and sweat off the charioteers’ faces, all kinds of rubbish from the bleachers. In short, yesterday evening’s downpour was a good chance to get everything perfectly cleaned up. Anyway, as the song says, yesterday’s gone... the rain’s gone too, and a very nice, not-too-hot, not-too-cold autumn sun is shining over the Circus as four of the eight survivors from yesterday’s ordeal start lining up for the...
On the starting line, in a bleachers-to-spina order, we can see the strong-built Aoife of the Silures driving Albata’s Biga Fortuna, who chose not to let her long blond hair flow freely, presumably not to distract anyone (including herself) and instead tied them up in a braid extending along most of her back; the equally long-haired Celt Merddyn, still shooting glances, from time to time, to the female driver right next to him – is it love, or what?! – while standing atop Praesina’s Volcanus; his compatriot, good friend and Praesina co-driver Ambicatos, on The Sunburst; lastly, Veneta’s heroic rider from yesterday’s first quarterfinal race, Equus Magnus on Orionis Draco. Just like yesterday, the tension is reaching an extreme of height just a few seconds before the actual start... horses snort anxiously... everyone’s tense... the trumpets’ sounds are heard high into the tepid air... and off they go! First lap, everyone goes more or less at the same speed, and it’s not really fast... the whole bunch looks almost like they’re doing a summer outing on quads, rather than a chariot race; Merddyn is the only one who, during this lap and the next one, attempts something of an advance, but his attempts seem to be somewhat nullified by his repeated glances at Aoife’s body... in spite of his friend Ambicatos yelling at him from behind, very closely, something like “Leave her alone... she’s a wh*re!!” It’s in the third lap that some well-worth-waiting-for action starts at last to be seen: after the first curve, Orionis Draco is seen blazing through the straight line, but in the meantime Equus, looking behind him, is able to see Ambicatos getting closer to him – after all, they’ve chosen exactly the same racing tactics. The two are so close, in fact, that Equus, standing with his head turned backwards all the time, worried that Ambicatos may attempt something dirty, doesn’t realize that he’s at the bend and he almost crashes into the wall. Fortunately his driving experience allows him to give a strong pull on his reins at precisely the right moment to save him from complete and utter distaster. So both him and the chariot are alive and well, but of course everything has a price, and in this case the price Equus has to pay is his third-place standing – with the additional burden of having Ambicatos staring at him with a devilish grin as he overtakes him. Regrettably, however, the excitement is soon-to-be over, as the fourth and fifth lap go past without any particular emotion – a fact underlined by booing and whistling from mostly everyone on the bleachers, particularily from the Praesina team, whose greatest dishonour would be seeing one of their best racers lose to a woman. By the sixth lap, Merddyn, who has apparently heard them all, accelerates, catches up with Aoife – who had been crazily, dementedly yelling, just like in the quarterfinals, during most of this lap and the previous one – and whispers something to her. Unfortunately, it’s really impossible to get what they’re saying: they are too far from where I’m standing. But what’s unquestionable is that whatever Merddyn told her isn’t certainly nasty: a big smile, extending from ear to ear, appears on Aoife’s usually imperturbable, extremely serious face as she triumphantly crossing the finish line on Biga Fortuna, leaving Merddyn’s Volcanus close behind her, followed by Ambicatos saluting his companion from The Sunburst – “Good luck, matey!” – coming in third, and a disillusioned Equus, muttering nervously to himself after coming in fourth on Orionis Draco. Then, as it happens, as everyone goes off to get a bit of relaxation while waiting for the final, the Briton woman and the Celt exit the Circus together, hand in hand, an almost invisible smile on both their faces shedding a light of clarity over what happened shortly before: they’re both in the final, they made a deal. Well... that’s just the way it goes. Do I need to comment any further?
After being sweeped up, the racecourse is getting ready to welcome the remaining four contestants. The sweeping workmen have been unusually quick, today... it must surely be the excitement for the big final! Whatever it is, the whole course is all spick & span now, and the new line-up is forming. Bleachers-to-spina it’s like this: P. Fidelius Lusitanus on his own Lightning II for Veneta; the stout Antropophagus from Russata on Germanica, looking somewhat milder-mannered than yesterday; Spurius Figulus, also for the Reds, on Blazius III; lastly, Veneta’s Incitatus, driven by young Stolo, who appears with clean ears, no sign of the white iPod earphones he was sporting yesterday, or of the device itself – which, I’ve been told, is somewhat uncharacteristic of him. However, I managed to get a hold of him just a few seconds before he climbed on his chariot, and he candidly admitted that music is the biggest passion of his life – other than racing, of course. “For me music is almost like some kind of dope,” he told me, “but today I thought I’d better avoid it. I like taking risk, but I’m not as stupd as to risk a doping disqualification!” Wise words, I have to say, from him – a real sportsman, which is rare to find in today’s world. Anyway, I’ve already blabbered enough, so let’s revert to the actual race account. Right after the trumpets’ sound, Lusitanus starts out quite strongly in the first lap; he’d already proved yesterday what a good driver he was, and today he’s doing nothing but confirming it. But of course Stolo and the others aren’t merely watching him go on his own; the young Liverpudlian, in particular, cuts right trough the curves in both the first and second laps. He hits the spina with the wheel’s hub, sparks fly every time, but he’s so good that he doesn’t ever deviate from his path, and splendidly goes on to overtake Lusitanus... who, at the start of the third lap, suddenly finds himself transformed from race leader into second-place struggler with Figulus, who has somehow managed to catch up. But the strong man from Iberia is obviously in possession of a few tricks of his own, and he’s ready to show off one as the third lap is winding down into the fourth: he sees Figulus on his right and he gets menacingly close to him... closer... still closer... nearer to the Circus wall... and BANG! A mighty crash ensues, involving both Lusitanus’ intended target and Germanica’s Antropophagus, and making the audience go absolutely wild. Luckily the chariots, like the men driving them, are strong enough to survuve the crash, and they move on. However, the bulky driver from Russata, who got the heaviest damage both to the chariot and to himself – his forehead is bleeding, sweat mixes with blood and blurs his eyes – isn’t able any longer to keep his chariot on a straight line, and indeed the vehicle wobbles into the fourth place all along the fifth lap, while the disorientated Russata horses look like they’re wonerding what the heck has happened to their helmsman. Getting back to the leading positions, Stolo may be seen whizzing across the racecourse like a rocket, always cutting straight into the curves despite not needing this any more (as he’s on his own), while Lusitanus, for all of his dirty tricks, is discovering that his own chariot isn’t made of iron, but of wood... so it didn’t get through the fourth lap’s crash competely unharmed, starts to wobble a little – though not as badly as Germanica – and, in the sixth lap, cannot get any further than the second place. Figulus hurries up a bit, tries to overtake Lusitanus showing him ‘the finger’ in the process – “I’m still ridin’, you sucker!!” – but he doesn’t quite make it. And thus the race ends: Stolo on Incitatus crosses the finish line first, his arms outstretched onto the sky, his face beaming; Lusitanus on Lightning II follows him, thinking that he ought to be more careful and less daring next time; Figulus on Blazius III is third, and a tired, bleeding, but thoroughly dignified Antropophagus slowly crosses the finish line as fourth. He’s so proud in having taken part in a semifinal, that he almost looks like a battle-torn hero who’s just returned from a lengthy war. But, after all, chariot racing is actually war, isn’t it?
Things move on so quickly, so swiftly here that there isn’t even time for some entertaining intermission; some music is faintly heard across the Circus, but no dancers appear... the kind of entertainment that the clamoring audience is waiting for is definitely another. Other sounds are also heard in the distance, metallic clashes and banging – no doubt the mechanics in the Veneta team, fixing up Lusitanus’ chariot and somehow trying to compensate for their master’s bravado in the semifinal of a few minutes ago. However, as I said, everything seems to be happening at double speed, and Lusitanus is very soon ready to get into his place on the starting grid. Next to him, bleachers-to-spina, are Stolo on Incitatus, also for Veneta, and the two charioteers who’ve quickly been dubbed ‘the love bugs’ by the mechanics, the racecourse workmen and all of the other behind-the-scenes people: Merddyn and Aoife, respectively driving Veneta’s Volcanus and Albata’s Biga Fortuna. Their faces, though, bear no sign of the smiley-smile-happily-in-love attitude they seemed to have at the end of the first semifinal: as they take their places on the grid, they are nothing but fighters. The trumpets’ blare is heard for the last time for these Ludi, and they’re all off. As if confirming that there’s definitely no end to the surprises here in the Circus, the Celt and the Liverpudlian dash off together, leaving the other two in a sort-of daze: evidently they still haven’t learned to expect the unexpected, especially in the final of a chariot race. The first lap is all to the advantage of the Stolo-Merddyn pair: the first having given up his risky close-to-the-spina driving tactic in favor of the safer, but still winning, accelerating technique on the straight lines; the second pushing his horses to their normal pace (which is mighty by itself), saving their energy for later on. This situation, however, proves to be short-lived, because, already by the start of lap #2, Lusitanus decides he’d like to be a little bit more daring – that’s just his nature! – and adopts Stolo’s risky curve-cutting tactic as his own, while Aoife catches up with the leading paiir and tries to break them up. Is she moved by thirst for victory or by jealousy? All in all, that Stolo boy is so beautiful... AHEM!! I’d better not digress any further and get straight back to the race account. In the third lap, the race’s equilibrium is starting to change, slowly but steadily: the Celt’s powerful horses are pulling him and his chariot toward glory, Lusitanus is cutting through the curves as effortlessly as a kinfe cutting through butter and is getting closer and closer to the newly-formed Stolo+Aoife pair, which moves in the second place as one. The fourth and fifth laps bring still more changes, making the audience cheer and shout with the greatest excitement... especially the people dressed in green. Merddyn, indeed, is now very definitely on his own and stays so all through the course of the two laps in spite of Lusitanus getting closer, at the expense of Stolo who is slowly moving back to the third place. During the fifth lap, another unexpected occurrence appears before the astonished eyes of the Albata supporters: a surprisingly resigned Aoife slows down and slips into the fourth place, far behind Stolo: it’s almost like she’s happy in seeing her lover’s triumph and acting like the last person who’d wish to spoil it... as this is what’s actually happening here. But it’s during the sixth and final lap that Merddyn gives all his best: his horses are quite literally on fire, and Lusitanus, with all of his masterful curve-cutting – not a single spark has been seen flying from the Iberian’s wheels during the course of the whole race – is still second; Stolo follows him very closely, the boy’s driving prowess is still showing even if there’s no more hope for victory; lastly, Aoife, acting like she couldn’t care less about the whole proceedings. And this is the very same situation on the finish line: Merddyn triumphs on Praesina’s Volcanus, a happy rain of silvered, shining green confetti fills the racecourse, flashing green flags and banners appear here and there throughout the bleachers; Lusitanus on Veneta’s Lightning II earns a very well-deserved silver medal; Aoife happily crosses the line in the last place, blowing a huge kiss to the winner, her hero; and Stolo, who came third, seems not to be very much concerned about his placement. Indeed, while he’s climbing the podium’s lowest step and being awarded the bronze medal, the young Briton is already grabbing his iPod and switching it on. And as the Consules austerely rise, and everyone slowly starts swarming away from the Circus, his ever-present earphones are already spurting out the lyrics to a Beatles song. I have no idea what it is... whether or not it’s “Ob-la-di, ob-la-da, life goes on, bra...” is really up to no one else than him...
...because for me – and I’m quite sorry to be typing this out – it is done. Many thanks to all the subscribers, the racers and everyone else who joined in. And to all of you out there, who’ve been reading so far, thanks very much indeed.
This is Publius Constantinus Placidus signing off, and hoping to find you all again here, same place, same hours, next time. Until then...
...et optime valete omnes.
–P. Con. Placidus
Aedilis Plebis Novæ Romæ