Well, the fantastic news is that my editor is delighted with the final manuscript of Spartacus: The Gladiator. She’s given me some homework (as always), but it shouldn’t take me more than 2-3 days to sort out. Knowing that on Friday evening felt like the holidays had begun early. To celebrate, I’m putting up some of the first chapter – a taster, if you like. To be continued later in the week. I hope you enjoy it!
South-western Thrace, autumn 74 BC
When the village came into sight at the top of a distant hill, he let out a happy cry. His feet were blistered, the muscles of his legs hurt and the weight of his mail shirt was making his back ache. The chill wind snapped around his ears, and he cursed himself for not buying a kausia before now. For years he’d worn a felt liner, and when necessary a bronze helmet, rather than a typical Thracian fox skin cap. But in this bitter weather, maybe warm clothing was more important than war gear. Gods, but he was looking forward to sleeping under the comfort of a roof, out of reach of the elements. The journey from the Roman camp where he’d been released from service had taken more than six weeks, and winter was fast approaching. It should have been less than half that, but his horse had gone lame only two days after he’d left. Since then, riding had been out of the question. Carrying his shield and equipment was as much as he could ask it to do without worsening its limp.
‘Any other mount, and I’d have sacrificed you to the gods long ago,’ he said, tugging the leadrope that guided the white stallion ambling along behind him. ‘But you’ve served me well enough these last years, eh?’ He grinned as it nickered back at him. ‘No, I’ve no apples left. But you’ll get a feed soon enough. We’re nearly home, thank the Rider.’
Home. The mere idea seemed unreal. What did that mean after so long? Seeing his father would be the best thing about it, although he’d be an old man by now. The traveller had been away for the guts of a decade, fighting for Rome. A power hated by virtually all Thracians, yet one that many served all the same. It had been done for good reasons. To learn their ways so that one day I can fight them again. Father’s idea was a good one. It wasn’t just that, added his combative side. You are a warrior, who follows the rider god. You love war. Bloodshed. Killing.
And I’ve had enough of it to last me for a while. It’s time to settle down. Find a woman. Start a family. He smiled. Once he would have scorned such ideas. Now they were appealing. During his time with the legions, he’d seen things that would turn a man’s hair grey. He’d become used to them ― in the red heat of battle, he had acted in much the same way ― but sacking undefended camps and villages, and seeing women raped and children killed were not things that sat especially well with him.
‘Planning how to take the fight to Rome will do me for now,’ he said to the stallion. ‘That, and making lots of babies.’
It nibbled his elbow, ever hopeful for a treat.
‘If you want some barley, get a move on,’ he said in an affectionate growl. ‘I’m not stopping to give you a nosebag this near to the village.’
Above him and to his left, something scraped off rock, and he cursed silently for letting his attention lapse. Just because he’d encountered no one on the rough track that day didn’t mean that it was safe. Yet the gods had smiled on him for the whole journey from Bithynia. This was a time when most Thracians avoided the bitter weather in favour of oiling and storing their weapons in preparation for the following campaigning season. For a lone traveller, made it the best time to travel.
I’ve done well not to have run into any bandits thus far. These ones are damn close to my village. Let there not be too many of them. Pretending to stretch his shoulders and roll his neck, he stole a quick glance to either side. Three men, maybe four, were watching him from their hiding places on the rocky slopes that bordered the rough track. Unsurprisingly for Thrace, they seemed to be armed with javelins. He eyed the tinned bronze helmet that hung from the pack on the stallion’s rump, and decided against making a grab for it. Few peltasts could hit a man in the head. As for his shield, well, he could reach that while their first javelins were still in the air. If he was hit, his mail shirt would probably protect him. Trying to untie his thrusting spear would take too much time. He’d carry the fight to them with his sica, the curved Thracian blade that hung from his gilded belt. They were acceptable odds, he decided. As long as the brigands weren’t expert shots. Great Rider, watch over me with a ready sword.
‘I know you’re there,’ he called out. ‘You might as well show yourselves.’
There was a burst of harsh laughter. About thirty paces away, one of the bandits stood up. Merciless eyes regarded the traveller from a narrow face pitted with scars. His embroidered woollen cloak swung open, revealing a threadbare, thigh-length tunic. A greasy kausia perched uneasily atop his head. He had scrawny legs, and his tall calfskin boots had seen better days. In his left hand, he carried a typical pelte, or crescent-shaped shield, and behind it a spare javelin; in his right, another light spear was cocked and ready to throw.
No armour, and apart from his javelins, only a dagger in his belt, noted the traveller. Good. His friends will be no better armed.
‘That’s a fine stallion you have there,’ said the thug. ‘A pity that it’s lame.’
‘It is. If it wasn’t, you shitbags wouldn’t have seen me for dust.’
‘But it is, so you’re on foot, and alone,’ sneered a second voice.
He looked up. The speaker was older than the first man, with a lined visage and greying hair. His hemp-woven clothing was equally ragged, but there was a fierce hunger in his brooding gaze. For all his poverty, his round shield was well made, and the javelin in his right fist looked to have seen good use. This was the most dangerous one. The leader. ‘You want the stallion, I suppose,’ the traveller said.
‘Ha!’ A third man stood up. He was larger than either of his companions; his arms and legs were heavily muscled, and instead of javelins, he carried a large pelte and a vicious-looking club. ‘We want it all. Your horse, your equipment and weapons. Your money, if you have any.’
‘We’ll even take your food!’ The fourth bandit was skeletally thin, with sunken cheeks and a sallow, unhealthy complexion. He had no shield, but three light spears.
‘And if I give you all that, you’ll let me go on my way?’ His breath plumed in the chill air.
‘Of course,’ promised the first man. His flat, dead eyes, and his comrades’ sniggers, gave the lie to his words.