But that’s great, because it means that my editor signed it off yesterday, happy with the homework that she’d given me last week. Phew. I wrote it in 6 months, 2 weeks. That’s pretty good, I reckon. Good timing too, because it means that I can go to the Festival of Living History at Kelmarsh this weekend and not have to think about it. Then there’s Bodies in the Bookshop in Heffer’s of Cambridge next week. Busy time! If you read the Spartacus excerpt a few days ago, and want to read the rext of that scene, please read on…
The traveller didn’t bother answering. He spun around, muttering, ‘Stay!’ to the stallion. Even as he slid his hand under his large circular shield and snapped the thong that held it in place, he heard a javelin zipping over his head. Another followed behind on a lower arc. It struck the dust between the horse’s hooves, making it skitter to and fro. ‘Calmly,’ he ordered. ‘You’ve been through this plenty of times before.’ Reassured by his voice, it settled.
‘Oeagrus, stop, you fool!’ shouted the leader. ‘If you injure that beast, I’ll gut you myself.’
Good. No more javelins. The stallion is too valuable. Keeping his back to his mount and raising the shield, he turned. The skinny bandit was to his rear now, but he wouldn’t risk any more spears. Nor would the others. Drawing his sica, he smiled grimly. ‘You’ll have to come down and fight me.’
‘Fair enough,’ growled the first man. Using his heels as brakes, he skidded down the slope. His two comrades followed. Behind him, the traveller heard the thin brigand also descending. The stallion bared its teeth and brayed an angry challenge. Let him even try to come close.
When the trio reached the bottom, they conferred for a moment.
‘Ready?’ he asked mockingly.
‘You whoreson,’ snarled the leader. ‘Will you be so arrogant when I cut your balls off and stuff them down your neck?’
‘At least you’d be able to find mine. I doubt that any of you scumbags have any.’
The big man’s face twisted with fury. Screaming at the top of his voice, he charged, pelte and club at the ready.
The traveller took a couple of steps forward. Placing his left leg behind the shield, he braced himself. He tightened his grip on his sica. This has to be quick, or the others will be on me as well.
Fortunately, the thug was as unskilled as he was confident. Driving his shield into his opponent’s, he swung a wicked blow at his head. The traveller, rocking back slightly from the impact of the strike, ducked his head out of the way. Reaching around with his sica, he sliced the big man’s left hamstring in two. A piercing scream rent the air, and the bandit collapsed in a heap. He had enough sense to raise his pelte, but the traveller smashed it out of the way with his shield and skewered him through the neck. The thug died choking on his own blood.
He tugged the blade free and kicked the corpse onto its back. ‘Who’s next?’
The leader hissed an order at the skinny man before he and the kausia-wearing bandit split up. Like crabs, they scuttled out to either side of their victim.
The stallion trumpeted another challenge, and the traveller sensed it rear up on its hindlegs. He stepped forward, out of its way. An instant later, there was a strangled cry, the dull thump, thump of hooves striking bone, and then the noise of a body hitting the ground. ‘My horse might be lame, but he still has quite a temper,’ he said mildly. ‘Your friend’s brains are probably decorating the road. Am I right?’
The two remaining brigands exchanged a shocked look. ‘Don’t even think of running away!’ warned the leader. ‘Oeagrus was my sister’s son. I want vengeance for his death.’
Unobtrusively, the traveller lowered his shield a fraction, exposing his neck. Let that tempt one of them.
The kausia wearer clenched his jaw. ‘Fuck whether the beast gets hit,’ he said, hurling his javelin.
The traveller didn’t move from the spear’s path. He simply raised his shield, letting it smack directly into the layered wood and leather. Its sharp iron head punched two fingers depth out through the inner surface, but did not injure him. Swinging back his left arm, he threw the now useless item at the thug, who scrambled away to avoid being hit. What he wasn’t expecting was for the traveller to be only a few steps behind his flying shield. When the kausia wearer thrust his second javelin at his opponent, it was parried savagely out of the way.
Using his momentum to keep moving forward, the traveller punched his opponent in the face with his left fist. The man’s head cracked back with the force of the blow, and he barely saw the sica as it came swinging back around to hack deep into the flesh where his neck met his torso. Spraying blood everywhere, and looking faintly surprised, he fell sideways into the road. Keeping time with the slowing beats of his heart, a crimson tide flooded the ground around him. Three down, but the last is the most deadly.
The traveller turned swiftly, expecting the leader’s attempt to stab him in the back. The move saved him from serious injury, and the javelin skidded off the rings of his mail shirt and into thin air, causing the man to overreach and stumble. A massive backhand to the face sent him sprawling backwards onto his arse, losing his weapon in the process.
He stared up at the traveller, frank terror in his eyes. ‘I have a wife. A f-family to f-feed,’ he stammered.
‘You should have thought of that before you ambushed me,’ came the growled reply.
The bandit screamed as the sica slid into his belly, slicing his guts to ribbons. Sobbing with pain, he waited for the death blow. But it did not fall. He lay there, helpless, already passing in and out of consciousness.
A few moments later, he opened his eyes. His killer was watching him impassively. ‘Don’t leave me to die,’ he begged. ‘Even Kotys wouldn’t do this to a man.’
‘Kotys?’ There was no response, so he kicked his victim. ‘You were going to cut my balls off and feed them to me, remember?’
He swallowed down his agony. ‘P-please.’
‘Very well.’ The sica rose high in the air.
‘Who in all the gods’ name are you?’ he managed to whisper.
‘Just a weary traveller with a lame horse.’
The blade scythed down, and the brigand’s eyes went wide for the last time.