I though it prefers time to settle. I had no time. My strength would give out at any moment. But I would catch him first if I could.

I heard a horse whinny. My heart sank, imagining he had a tethered mount somewhere. Then Thurius threw out his arms. Horse and rider had crashed out of the wood on the far side, and were galloping straight at him,

He couldn't stop. He stumbled and lost the axe. The horse reared over him, but was reined back. Thurius staggered, still, keeping upright, still determined to escape. He feinted with one arm at the horse, ducked its hooves, and hurled himself down the track again. I had kept running. I crashed past the horse, glimpsing a familiar rider, who dragged it sideways to give me space. Then I caught up and launched myself on to Thurius.

I flung him down, face first in the leafmould. I was so angry that once I made contact he stood no chance. I fell on his back, making sure I landed heavily. I pinioned his arms and clung on, commanding him to give up. He wrenched sideways, still thrashing. I pulled him up bodily and smashed him face down again. By then the horseman had dismounted and come rushing up., Next minute, my furious helper was booting Thurius in the ribs as if he meant to finish him.

`Steady!' I yelled, leaning out of the way of the flying boots. It stopped both of them. Thurius finally capsized with his face in the ruts of the track.

Still astride my captive, I started controlling my breathing. `Nice action,' I gasped, looking up at the other man.

`Basic training,' he answered.

`Oh, you never lose it.' I managed to grin, though extra, exertion was a trial. `I don't suppose you would consider throwing up the governorship of Britain and entering into a formal partnership with me?'

Julius Frontinus – soldier, magistrate, administrator, author and future expert on the water supply smiled modestly. A look of genuine yearning crossed his face. `That might be one of history's great 'What if?' questions, Falco.'

Then I accepted a hand up, while the ex-Consul held down our captive by planting one of his feet on the villain's neck.

That was fine. We felt like heroes. But we now had to try to find Claudia.


Thurius was refusing to talk. I had a feeling that he always would. Some want to boast some go to their fate still denying everything. Thurius was plainly the silent type.

Unwilling to let him out of sight, I lashed his hands behind him with my belt before we threw him across the Consul's horse; I explained about finding the hut by the river. We took Thurius with us while, we trekked back to; it. This time I thought I knew what we were going to find.

To my surprise, as we approached the shack I saw the door was standing open. Outside, crouching on the ground, was Bolanus, with bruises all over him, shaking his head. Hearing our approach he staggered, upright. I rushed to support him.

'In there -' He was swaying and woozy. `I followed him – saw him take her in – I yelled: he ran out and set on me then we heard you in the woods. I drove him off, but I was passing out. I could still hear you away in the woods I got inside and collapsed against the door. I knew I just had to keep him out

'You were there all night? Dear gods, sit down

Bolanus only gestured despairingly towards the hut. Frontinus and I glanced at each other, then at the shack.

The three of us approached the battered doorway. Fresh air had not dispersed the musty smell. In the light of day the full horror of the place hit us: the dark floor, clearly stained with old congealed blood. The cleaver hung up on a nail: sharp, clean, its handle ebonised with age and use. The row of butcher's knives. The discoloured bucket. The sacks piled

neatly, ready for the next gruesome adventure. The coiled ropes. And the latest victim.

When I saw the low bench where he had dumped her, a despairing cry strangled itself in my throat. Trussed up there lay a shape, human in size and form, covered with cloth and motionless. We had found her at last. I had to turn away.

Frontinus pushed past me and went in.

'I know her.' I was rooted to the spot. Bolanus gave me a horrified look, then touched my arm and followed the Consul.

They brought the body out. Gently they laid the woman on the damp ground, turning her away from us to, give them access to her arms, which had been bound behind her back. Frontinus asked for a knife, and I passed him mine. Careful and meticulous, he edged the point under the cords and worked the blade up until the bindings sheared through. He freed her arms, legs and body. I' bestirred myself and helped him as, he turned her carefully on to her back and set about removing the gag from around her face.

We lifted away part of the filthy cloth that covered her mouth. Exposing her to the fresh breezes of the Sabine Hills, I forced myself to look.

My stomach lurched. Harsh blonde locks, besmirched face paint clogged on sagging skin, a trashily expensive necklace with thick ropes of gold and monstrous gobbets of polished bloodstone my brain could hardly take it in. I realised this was not Claudia.

`She's alive!'' exclaimed Frontinus, checking her haggard neck for a pulse..

Then she opened her eyes and groaned. As she blinked in pain at the daylight, I accepted the amazing truth: we had rescued Cornella Flaccida.

It took us a long time to bring her round properly, but once she could, see us she looked, set to harangue us and she wanted to be up and flying at Thurius He was fortunate that after her two-day ordeal locked in the cisium she could only lie helpless, crying out in agony while we tried to massage the blood back into her limbs. The cisium was wide enough for her to have been stretched out straight,; and the ropes had, not cut off her circulation completely, or she could never have survived. As feeling returned she was racked with pain.

It would be a day or so before she could stand or walk. It seemed as if nothing sexual had been done to her, but she had been expecting it. That must have been terrible enough.

Before she really knew where she, was, she was croakingangrily. In view of what I had been afraid of finding, any noise from her was welcome. And after being tied up for two days, bounced along for forty miles in a dark confined space, dehydrated and starved, motion sick and – forced to soil herself, while all the time expecting the fate of the women who had previously been dismembered by Thurius, even Flaccida was entitled, to be furious. She must have thought she would never be missed, and if missed never traced: she was sharp, enough to have noticed that Rubella had called off his surveillance. Her family had no idea where she had gone to live. Her beaten-up slaves could hardly be expected to report her disappearance; they would be glad to find themselves left in peace. Like so many others before her she would have vanished from Rome without trace. Once the narrowness of her escape hit home, she fell silent and subsided into deep shock.

Discovering Flaccida here did not solve the mystery of what had happened to Aelianus' betrothed, but it left some hope that young Claudia's fate that night might have been less dreadful.

`What now?' asked Frontinus. He had told me briefly how Aelianus had found him, dressed for action and with a fierce horse ready saddled at his house. He had sent Aelianus to sort out the warrant with the judge Marponius,, while he himself, ever practical, hurtled after me on the Tiburtina road. `The Urban Cohorts and my own staff should be here very soon. A conveyance can be found for the woman once she has had a chance to recover somewhat – but I'd like to get this bastard on his way to the judge in double quick time.'

It suited me. I wanted to go home.

As for Thurius, I had already thought up a way to take him back. A way that was secure for us, unpleasant for him, and highly appropriate. I took very great care not to kill him:

I wrapped him in the most disgusting old cloths I could find head and all. I tied him up just enough to make him suffer, but not enough to cut off his circulation and finish him. Then I locked him in the box of his master's cisium. Frontinus and I drove it back to Rome. We took two days to do it and throughout the journey we left

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