From Sunday Times Bestselling author Ben Kane comes a collection of short stories:
Sands of the Arena
Can a wet-behind-the-ears gladiator survive a bloody contest ordered by Emperor Caligula?
Centurion Tullus discovers that Fate will always hold him in her grip.
Legionary Piso's much anticipated payday plays out very differently than he expected.
Eagles in the East
Caught up in a bloody rebellion, Centurion Tullus battles to keep his men alive.
Eagles in the Wilderness
Bored with retirement, Centurion Tullus takes service with an amber merchant, voyaging to unknown, dangerous lands far beyond the empire.
Hannibal: Good Omens
History's most famous general seeks the gods' approval before his war with Rome.
Romulus and Tarquinius travel to the ends of the earth, searching for their lost friend Brennus.
Release date: September 16, 2021
Publisher: Orion Publishing Group
Print pages: 320
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Sands of the Arena and Other Stories
‘Richard the Lionheart’s name echoes down the centuries as one of history’s greatest warriors, and this book will immortalise him even more. A rip-roaring epic, filled with arrows and spattered with blood. Gird yourself with mail when you start’
Paul Finch, author of Strangers
‘Ben’s deeply authoritative depiction of the time is delivered in a deft manner. I was immersed in the detail of Rufus’s life, with its heat and cold, its odours, foods, clothing, beats, politics and all the other minutiae of the age’
Simon Scarrow, author of the Eagles of the Empire series
‘Kane’s virtues as a writer of historical adventures – lively prose, thorough research, colourful action – are again apparent’
Nick Rennison, The Sunday Times
‘Lionheart has plenty of betrayal, bloodshed and rich historical detail’
Martin Chilton, Independent
‘Plenty of action, blood, scheming, hatred, stealth and politics here, if that’s what you want in your read – and you know it is!’
‘To read one of Ben Kane’s astonishingly well-researched, bestselling novels is to know that you are, historically speaking, in safe hands’
Elizabeth Buchan, Daily Mail
‘This is a stunningly visual and powerful read: Kane’s power of description is second to none . . . Perfect for anyone who is suffering from Game of Thrones withdrawal symptoms’
Helena Gumley-Mason, The Lady
‘Fans of battle-heavy historical fiction will, justly, adore Clash of Empires. With its rounded historical characters and fascinating historical setting, it deserves a wider audience’
Antonia Senior, The Times
‘Grabs you from the start and never lets go. Thrilling action combines with historical authenticity to summon up a whole world in a sweeping tale of politics and war. A triumph!’
Harry Sidebottom, author of the The Last Hour
‘The word epic is overused to describe books, but with Clash of Empires it fits like a gladius in its scabbard. What Kane does, with such mastery, is place the big story – Rome vs Greece – in the background, while making this a story about ordinary men caught up in world-defining events. In short, I haven’t enjoyed a book this much for ages. There aren’t many writers today who could take on this story and do it well. There might be none who could do it better than Ben Kane’
Giles Kristian, author of Lancelot
‘Exceptional. Kane’s excelled once again in capturing the terror and the glory . . . of the ancient battlefield, and this story is one that’s been begging for an expert hand for a long time’
Anthony Riches, author of the Empire series
‘Carried off with panache and Kane’s expansive, engaging, action-packed style. A complex, fraught, moving and passionate slice of history from one of our generation’s most ambitious and engaging writers’
Manda Scott, author of the Boudica series
‘It’s a broad canvas Kane is painting on, but he does it with vivid colours and, like the Romans themselves, he can show great admiration for a Greek enemy and still kick them in the balls’
Robert Low, author of the Oathsworn series
‘Ben Kane manages to marry broad narrative invention with detailed historical research . . . in taut, authoritative prose . . . his passion for the past, and for the craft of story-telling, shines from every page’
Toby Clements, author of the Kingmaker series
‘This thrilling series opener delivers every cough, spit, curse and gush of blood to set up the mighty clash of the title. Can’t really fault this one’
Jon Wise, Weekend Sport
‘Ben Kane’s new series explores the bloody final clash between ancient Greece and upstart Rome, focusing on soldiers and leaders from both worlds and telling the story of a bloody war with style’
Charlotte Heathcote, Sunday Express S Magazine
‘A thumping good read. You can feel the earth tremble from the great battle scenes and feel the desperation of those caught up in the conflict. Kane’s brilliant research weaves its way lightly throughout’
David Gilman, author of the Master of War series
The ludus at Capua, summer AD 39
It was hot, cursedly hot. Even the flies were dozing. The air was fetid with the smell of oiled leather, unwashed bodies and bean-farts. Eyes closed, I slouched on my bunk, back sweat-stuck to the wall, feet on the dirt floor, in the only position that provided a modicum of cool in the stuffy cell. My roommates sprawled on their own bunks, silent or asleep, one above me, two opposite. It amazed me how they could lie on the rough woollen blankets and straw ticks in this heat, while I could not.
And yet it was not that surprising. I, fair-skinned and Hibernian, was used to cool, rainy weather, not this form of Hades, which is what the summer months in Capua felt like to me. You could say the other three had been born to it, Piye the Nubian most of all. Black as charcoal, he, I reckoned, could fall asleep in the midday sun. Big Dog, tall and long-limbed, was from the far south of Gaul, a place almost as hot as Italia. Dapyx – skin-inked on his chest and mad as a rabid wolf – was from north of Thrace. I had no real idea where that was, other than it was far to the east, and if he was to be believed, a place with scorching summers and winters cold enough to freeze a man’s breath.
From the courtyard, a familiar sound started up, the thwack, thwack of wood hitting wood. It was not a time of day to be training, I thought. A man would soon get heat stroke. Curious, I leaned forward to peer through the bars. Our cell was like all the others, a ground floor, square room twelve paces by ten; it faced onto the centre of the ludus, where we exercised and trained. Opposite was another rank of cells, as well as the kitchens, dining area, hospital and the armoury. On the first floor there were offices, and living quarters for Crixus, our gloriously named lanista, and the trainers.
Thanks to the semicircle of wooden seating that occupied one half of the courtyard – used when private shows were staged – many cells had no view of the fighting area. Mine did, which meant that I could see the two unfortunates who had been set to fighting one another on the burning sand. I did not recognise either. Crixus was also there, lank-haired, pot-bellied, his whip dangling from his right hand as ever. His armed guards, whom he was never without, lounged nearby.
Tirones, I thought. Fresh from the slave block.
It was clear why Crixus had bought the pair. Both were young and well-built, and the one nearest me was a hand taller than Big Dog, which took some doing. It was impossible to assess a man’s fighting ability in the market, however, where the vendors would swear blind that this man was Hercules reborn, and that one the killer of five legionaries before he was captured. Not until Crixus got them back here and placed wooden swords in their fists, and set them at each other would he know if the coin he had paid out had been wasted, or potentially well spent.
‘Mi-deer.’ Dapyx mangled whatever language he spoke, save his own, and my name was no exception.
I did not turn my head. ‘What?’ I spoke in Latin. None of us spoke it well, but it was the lingua franca that allowed we gladiators, dragged from every corner of the earth, to communicate.
‘Who . . . out there?’
‘What am I – your pissing slave? Look for yourself, you lazy bastard.’ My cocky answer was designed to show I was not weak. In the ludus, strength was everything, and weakness a sure path to Charon’s hammer. I had no idea if I could beat Dapyx in a fight, and I did not ever want to have to try.
There was a thump as Dapyx hopped down onto the floor and came to see. He grunted something foul-sounding at me in his own tongue. Wondering if, hoping I had not, gone too far, I ignored him. The unfolding duel soon grabbed my attention. I quickly decided that the two newcomers were strangers, because they were going at each other like there was a blood feud between them. I had been in the ludus only a few months, but that was long enough to spot friends who arrived together. It often took a thorough whipping before they were prepared to harm one another. This pair, however, were holding back not at all.
The taller one was slim, but he had a longer reach, and was using that advantage to belt the other every chance he got. His opponent, who by his skin colour and chlamys garment could have been Greek or Illyrian, already had red welts on both his muscular arms and on one side of his face. He was angry too, snarling and trying to close with the tall man, who, light on his feet as a Minoan bull rider, kept skipping back and out of the way. Then he got a punch in with his left fist, a solid blow to the midriff that made the tall man oofff with surprise and pain.
‘He . . . strong,’ said Dapyx. ‘Another punch, and . . . over.’
‘I think you are right,’ I said.
‘I . . . always right.’
I thought of a smart answer, and swallowed it down.
‘You are talking out of your arse, Dapyx.’ Piye had come to watch as well. ‘The way you always do.’
Dapyx snorted. ‘Piss off.’
I listened to the banter, jealous of it; the two were friends, mismatched, the complete opposite of each other, and yet close as brothers. I had no idea why.
Whack, whack. The tall man landed one blow on the Greek – as I had come to think of him – and then another. Throwing the second was risky, because it was still not a bout-ending strike, and it allowed the Greek to close on him. The punch he took as a result was so powerful that we heard his teeth snap shut. It lifted him up in the air, and, already unconscious, he flew backwards, landing in a heap before an impassive-faced Crixus.
Dapyx elbowed me hard. ‘What . . . I say?’
Ribs stinging, losing control for an instant, I shoved at him. ‘Anyone could see he was going to win.’
Dapyx bared his teeth at me, and my skin crawled. I stared at him to show that I was not afraid – I was, though – and he glared back at me.
To my relief, Big Dog had woken, and clambered down from his bunk over mine. He came ambling up to the bars. ‘Tirones?’ he asked, shoving between me and Dapyx.
‘Yes. One good fighter, one show-off.’ Dapyx’s attention shifted, as it tended to do. Like the mad creature he was, he paid me no more heed.
I kept the thought to myself that the tall man was quite skilled. If he had used more force, his blows might have downed the Greek before the sucker punch.
Big Dog peered out into the blinding sunlight. Directed by Crixus, a slave was upturning a bucket of water over the tall fighter. Coughing and spluttering, he woke. The Greek watched, no doubt wondering what would happen next.
Crixus began the speech he gave to all rookies: blood and guts, dire threats and flicks of his whip to and fro across the sand. I had heard it so many times now that I knew it almost by heart.
Big Dog chuckled. ‘Drunken sot Crixus may be, but he can deliver.’
‘True enough.’ I glanced sideways at him, who was as near to a friend as I had in the cell. We had shared a few jokes, and neither of us farted too much.
Big Dog and Dapyx had had one fight before, when Dapyx had arrived in our cell half a month earlier. Separated by a trainer, it had been a brutal affair – cuts and bruises had marked them for days after – and to all intents, a draw. An odd truce had sprung up between them since, which both seemed content to observe. It left me as the only potential enemy for Dapyx, a situation which I did not like. Trouble simmered between us, but not in any predictable way. He was not a one for throttling a man in his sleep – nor was I – but the harsh words we had just exchanged might have sent him into one of his killing rages.
There was no way of predicting his reaction to the most banal thing, which meant that I constantly had to be on my guard, and my nerves were the worse for it.
I had wondered about trying to earn his friendship, but nothing had presented itself.
Maybe I should just kill him in his sleep, and have done, I thought. An image of the last fighter to murder another sprang into my mind: crucified in the yard, he had taken three full days and nights to die. His moans had been our lullabies at night, and his cries for water the cockcrow at dawn. It had been a mercy when he finally succumbed.
I could not slay Dapyx, I decided.
Nor could I avoid him.
We had to become comrades, but quite how a man could befriend a dog as likely to bite him as wag its tail, I had no idea. It was either that or become a gladiator even better than Dapyx, something I was not sure was possible. Lean as a gazehound I am, you see, with the ribs to show it. ‘All sinew, you are,’ my mother had always said. ‘Born to run.’
Scarcely ideal gladiator material.
I had only survived my own tiro bout by using the old ruse of flinging sand into my opponent’s eyes. Momentarily blinded, he had fallen before my determined assault. Crixus had sneered, and told me that I would need better tricks if I was to survive my second contest in the arena.
Which was how I became a retiarius, a fisherman.
‘They aren’t prisoners of war,’ said Big Dog.
‘Too well fed,’ said Piye.
‘Not auctorati,’ Dapyx put in. ‘Look like slaves.’ Those who volunteered to become gladiators were citizens.
‘Damnati ad ludos then,’ I added. ‘I wonder what they did.’ Slaves who had displeased or angered their owners were often sold into the ludus.
‘The Greek ploughed his master once too often, and got caught by his mistress,’ said Big Dog.
Dapyx laughed. So did Piye.
I snorted. ‘Not every Greek is a molles.’ Molles meant ‘soft’, and was a derogatory term for those who preferred to lie with men.
‘That tiro looks like one,’ said Big Dog, waggling his eyebrows and pouting. ‘Put a hand on his arse in the kitchen queue – that will tell you if I am right.’
I stared at the Greek, who seemed no different to any other man. ‘Piss off!’
Big Dog laughed.
Crixus had finished his speech.
We stopped talking.
The voices from other cells – plenty of men were watching – also fell silent. No one wanted to miss the spectacle. Now came the moment that we had all gone through, the taking of the gladiatorial vow. It was, according to Crixus and the trainers, more binding than any other oath in the Roman world. It bound us all, made a familia of us, a brotherhood linked by blood, sand and the sword.
‘Miserable specimens you might be, but you are about to become gladiators,’ said Crixus in a loud voice. ‘Once taken, you will be comrades with every man inside these walls.’
We cheered. Spoons rattled off the bars. Feet were stamped.
The tall man and the Greek glanced at each other.
Like a master orator speaking at a public gathering in the forum, Crixus waited until it was quieter. ‘Repeat after me . . .’
Total silence descended on the ludus. The whining creak of a dry-axled wagon from beyond the walls – not a sound that would normally carry within – was shockingly loud.
‘We swear . . .’
‘To be burned, flogged, beaten . . .’
I was watching the tirones’ faces as they echoed Crixus. There was a trace of fear in the tall man’s expression, but he mouthed the words without hesitation. The Greek looked most unhappy.
‘And to be killed with cold steel – or whatever else is ordered.’
‘And to be killed with cold steel,’ said the tall man and the Greek. A moment’s hesitation, and they added in unison, ‘or whatever else is ordered.’
Crixus made a gesture, and slaves came forward from the direction of the forge, where our weapons, helmets and some armour were made. With thick lengths of wood as carrying arms, they were bearing a three-legged iron brazier. Its base was a dull red colour, a mark of the hot charcoal within.
Everyone watching knew what would happen next, but it only dawned on the tirones when they saw the iron pokers. They quailed, but there was nowhere to go. The trainers and guards had closed in around them, sticks at the ready, weapons on their belts if either turned stupid. Urged by Crixus, the two men lay down, and did not resist as their arms and legs were pinioned.
Into the brazier went the irons. Crixus turned them every so often. When the first was ready, he lifted it up appraisingly. I could not take my eyes off the dull-red glow. Its end, I knew, had been twisted into a neat arrangement of small letters. They read: lud. cap., which was cursive Latin for Ludus Capua, our gladiator school. Every man in the place had the same brand on the upper surface of his right forearm. Marked for life, even if you won the rudis and were freed.
‘A denarius the tall one screams,’ said Big Dog.
‘Done,’ I said. Before he could change his mind, I shook his hand.
Hiss. There is nothing quite like the sound of a branding iron being pushed against flesh. Nothing quite like the charred stench of it either.
The Greek wailed and sobbed like a newborn left half a day without milk.
A groan escaped the tall man, and no more.
Delighted, I needled Big Dog until he went back to his bunk for the coin.
That afternoon, as the sun disappeared behind the top storey of the ludus, and the gong rang for food, I made sure to join the queue behind the tall tiro. My confrontation with Dapyx had decided me to be on the lookout for an ally, and a newcomer was a good place to start. His face was drawn, and he kept looking at the salve-covered wound on his right forearm.
‘It hurts like a bastard,’ I said.
He glanced at me warily. ‘Aye.’
‘The first two or three days are the worst. I can get you some poppy juice if you want.’ The ludus surgeon would sell anything to a man with the coin. He had a taste for whores and gambling, which meant his purse was always empty.
A suspicious look. ‘Why would you do that?’
I shrugged. ‘Just being friendly.’
He turned his back.
We moved a few steps nearer the kitchen. Big Dog joined me.
‘My name is Midir. I’m a retiarius. This long streak of misery is Big Dog. He fights as a murmillo.’
The tall tiro glanced over his shoulder. ‘Mattheus.’
‘Unusual to meet another cloud-toucher,’ said Big Dog. ‘You a Gaul too?’
‘No. I am half-Jewish, half-Roman.’
‘Explains the name,’ I said. ‘You must be a slave then, rather than a prisoner of war like me. I am from Hibernia, which is a rain-misted isle—’
‘I know where it is. North-west of Gaul and west of Britannia.’
Respect flared in Big Dog’s eyes. ‘That’s more than I knew when this flea-bitten dog told where he was whelped.’
‘That is because you are a brute with no education,’ I retorted.
Big Dog snorted. ‘Says the man who cannot read and write.’
I laughed, partly in relief that he had taken my insults and thrown at least one back. He was becoming a friend.
We shuffled another half dozen steps.
‘I was a scribe to a merchant,’ said Mattheus. ‘He caught me stealing. The first couple of times, he beat me black and blue. The third, he sold me to the ludus.’
‘Why did you keep thieving?’ I asked curiously.
‘You would laugh if I told you.’
‘We are going to take the piss out of you anyway,’ said Big Dog cheerily. ‘That’s the way life is here.’
‘He’s right,’ I said.
Mattheus scowled. ‘I was buying books.’
Big Dog looked as nonplussed as I.
‘It is I who should be mocking you,’ said Mattheus. ‘But I will not.’
A wise choice, I thought. For all our jocularity, we would have turned on him like wild dogs if he, the unaccepted newcomer, had had the temerity to poke fun at us.
‘Books are stories, set down on parchment,’ said Mattheus. ‘There can be more information in one book than in all the tales you have ever heard.’
‘Stealing money to pay for drink or whores, that I can understand,’ said Big Dog, shaking his head. ‘But books?’
‘All that learning isn’t of much use here,’ I said. ‘In the ludus, life is about survival.’
‘I thought that,’ said Mattheus, looking again at his still-weeping brand.
‘Are you going to stand there gossiping all day?’ growled a voice behind us. ‘Get a move on, cocksuckers.’
I rolled my eyes. The gap between Mattheus and the next man along was no more than five paces. There was always an impatient one, however – someone whose belly thought his throat had been cut. It was not worth a fight, but to back down meekly was not wise either. I glowered at the man who had spoken, while nudging Mattheus forward.
‘Don’t get any ideas about jumping the line,’ Big Dog warned over his shoulder, but he was also moving.
Our conversation ceased as we reached the doorway into the kitchen, where a table served as the counter. One of the cooks, a sour-faced German, stood with a ladle in hand. In front of him was a large steaming pot and a pile of loaves. Simple clay bowls were stacked to one side.
Mattheus pointed. ‘What is it?’
The cook sneered. ‘Surprise.’
‘Take a bowl,’ I said quietly. ‘Hold it out. Move on.’
‘Unless you want him to spit in it as well, do what I say,’ I said.
Mattheus obeyed, but he was grumbling under his breath.
The cook gave him no bread.
I was next, and Mattheus realised he had been deprived. He made to go back, but I shoved him on. ‘Did the wooden sword scramble your wits? Do not annoy the cook, or you will be eating weevils and maggots for the rest of your time here.’
‘He’s a slave like us,’ protested Mattheus.
‘Aye, but he serves the food, and you don’t,’ said Big Dog.
Each mealtime, the tables that usually stood up against one of the courtyard’s side walls were moved out onto the sand. We found a table that was unoccupied – always the best policy – and sat down.
‘Where’s the Greek?’ I asked. ‘The one who knocked you out.’
Mattheus scowled. ‘I have no idea. Not in my cell. And he is no Greek. He’s from Asia Minor.’
I stared. He might as well have said the Garden of the Hesperides to me – that was a fantastical place at the end of the world, apparently.
‘Have you heard of Troy?’
‘No, I haven’t,’ I snarled.
‘Nor me neither,’ said Big Dog.
I had had enough. ‘See here,’ I said, flattening my hands on the table in order not to bunch them into fists, ‘we might not be educated like you, but we know how to survive in the ludus.’
‘So far,’ said Big Dog in a droll voice.
‘Aye, so far. You, on the other hand, seem to be a smart arse. Keep looking down your nose at us, and if we don’t leave your brains leaking out on the floor of the latrines, someone a lot meaner than us will. And that’s after he has raped you. Not noticed the looks you have been getting?’
Mattheus’ eyes flickered around the tables. More than one man was staring in his direction. One licked his lips; another rubbed his groin. ‘I hope you like biting the pillow,’ called a third. Mattheus’ gaze returned to me and Big Dog. ‘I do not mean to insult,’ he said. ‘Forgive me. The world I have been used to is very different to this.’
‘You don’t say,’ I said.
‘For a soft-handed scribe, you fought all right, though,’ said Big Dog. ‘How come?’
‘A few years ago, the master’s premises were robbed several times in quick succession,’ Mattheus replied. ‘All his male slaves had to learn how to fight. It is not something I liked, but I was good at it.’
‘Aye, well, fighting in the arena is different to anything you will have experienced. Best pay attention to the doctores, the instructors,’ I said. ‘A few other things also. Mouth shut. Ears and eyes open. Avoid eye contact if you can, but if someone gives you shit, give it back verbally.’
‘It’s a balancing act,’ said Big Dog cheerily. ‘You have to know how far you can push a man before it becomes dangerous.’
Mattheus looked less than happy, but he nodded. ‘I will do what you say. Is there room in your cell for another?’
‘No,’ I replied, wishing that I could swap him with Dapyx.
‘Who’s that?’ Big Dog was gazing at the entrance, which was always manned by two armed guards. They had unlocked the gate and admitted a self-important-looking type in a richly cut tunic and stylish sandals. He was escorted by one straight to Crixus’ quarters.
‘If that is one of the magistrates’ lackeys, I’ve never seen him before,’ said Big Dog, who had been in the ludus for a year and a half. ‘He’s from out of town.’
My interest pricked, I watched the dandy enter Crixus’ reception room on the first floor, the entrance to which I could see from our table.
Little did any of us know it, but the visitor would change all of our lives.
Peace fell on the courtyard. A hum of conversation filled the air, broken by occasional bursts of laughter. Everyone had eaten; soon we would be locked into our cells for the night, and so men were playing dice or latrunculus, and drinking wine if they had it. Two Thracians were arm wrestling, and being egged on by a dozen others. My bladder was full, and I was debating whether to risk using the facilities – a dangerous place on one’s own – or to wait and piss in the pot that we shared. Imagining the abuse I would get from the others for using it so soon after lockdown, I decided to go now. Big Dog declared he would join me; Mattheus quickly said the same.
My worries eased. There was little chance of getting jumped in a group of three. We made for the latrine, which was close to the kitchen. A square room with seats on three sides, it was a fuggy, foul-smelling place in which one did not linger. As yet, the aqueduct did not supply the ludus, so there was no channel of running water to carry away the waste. Under the wooden seats was a deep trench; when it filled up, it had to be emptied, which was a task everyone hated.
‘Be careful when you piss,’ Big Dog said to me as we went in. ‘The next man who needs a shit doesn’t want to sit on your efforts.’
It was a standing joke. No one sat down unless they absolutely had to. I cheerfully told him where he could shove a blunt stick, and we chose our spots. Side by side, obviously – that was the safest. Mattheus, awkward, still unsure, moved as far from us as possible. I was about to warn him, but Big Dog muttered, ‘Leave him. He has to learn.’
I held my tongue, and lifting my tunic, sighed as my overfull bladder began to empty.
Voices behind; my skin crawled. I looked around. In came the Greek who had knocked out Mattheus. His face was thunderous. My mouth opened to warn Mattheus, but then the arm-wrestling Thracians came in close behind him, and on their tails was another of their cronies.
‘Trouble,’ I said quietly to Big Dog, explaining what I had seen.
I do not wish to describe what the Thracians wanted. I suspect that it has always been the same in places where violent men are deprived of women’s company. Whether the Greek had realised what they were about I do not know, but his strangled protest as they leaped on him made it clear that he did not want it.
I finished. ‘Ready?’ I asked Big Dog.
‘Aye.’ He had his fists bunched, in case we needed to fight our way out.
‘Mattheus.’ I stared over the knot of punching, grabbing bodies on the floor. ‘Can you get around them?’
‘I – we . . .’ he said. ‘Should we not help him?’
‘Who?’ I asked innocently.
‘The G-Greek. From Asia Minor.’ His eyes kept darting to the struggle. The Greek had landed a mighty punch, and knocked out one of the Thracians, but he had taken a kick to the balls, and his strength was fast ebbing.
‘Unless you want what is about to befall him to happen to you also, I suggest you leave. Now. With us.’
His face tortured, Mattheus scuttled around the seats to where we stood. ‘This is not right. It’s vile. An abomination.’
‘Aye,’ I said. ‘It is. Coming?’
Fists at the ready, eyes on the door, I led the way outside.
Perhaps five heartbeats later, a roar followed us, such as is made by a man at the limits of desperation.
Heads turned. Seeing us, Dapyx leered, as if to suggest we had been involved. I paid him no heed.
Two guards came running, cudgels in hand.
We sauntered back to our table, and watched.
In went the guards. Crack, crack came the sound of their staffs, indiscriminately, I had no doubt. Out sloped two of the Thracians, supporting the third between them. The Greek was last, weak-legged, a purple weal ringing his throat, but still able to walk. His undergarment was also in place, for which I was glad. The filthy Thracians had not succeeded.
Crixus came storming down from his office, sword in hand.
The guards prodded the Thracians and the Greek to stand before him.
‘That shout would have woken Somnus himself!’ snarled Crixus. ‘Who made it?’
No one answered.
‘I am in no mood to humour fools. Someone speak,’ warned Crixus. ‘Quickly.’
One of the guards said, ‘These barbarians –’ he indicated the Thracians – ‘were attacking the Greek. I think it was he who cried out, dominus.’
Crixus’ eyes, flintier than ever, bore down on the Greek. ‘Well?’
‘I slipped and fell. I was in a lot of pain.’
A snort. ‘That’s what they all say.’ Crixus stared at the Thracians, and very slowly, as if speaking to small children, growled, ‘What have you to say?’
A shared glance.
The biggest Thracian said, ‘We . . . arguing .
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