Simon Scarrow

The Gladiator




We should reach Matala on the next tack,' announced the captain as he shaded his eyes and gazed at the coastline of Crete off the starboard beam, burnished by the late afternoon sun.

Beside him on the deck stood some of his passengers, a Roman senator, his daughter and two centurions, bound for Rome. The four had boarded at Caesarea together with the daughter's maidservant, a young Judaean girl. The captain was proud of his vessel. The Horus was an old ship from Alexandria, retired from the fleet that shipped grain across the Mediterranean to Rome. Despite her years she was still a tough, seaworthy vessel and the captain was confident and experienced enough to take her out of the sight of land when necessary. Accordingly, the Horus had headed directly out to sea when she left the port of Caesarea, and had made landfall off the coast of Crete three days later.

'Will we arrive at Matala before night?' asked the senator.

'I'm afraid not, sir.' The captain smiled faintly. 'And I'm not going to attempt an approach in the dark. The Horus has a full hold and rides low in the water. Can't risk running her up on any rocks.'

'So what happens tonight then?'

The captain pursed his lips briefly. 'We'll have to stand off the coast, hove to until dawn. Means I'll lose a day, but that can't be helped. Best offer a quick prayer to Poseidon that we make up the time after we leave Matala.'

The older centurion let out a frustrated sigh.' Bloody sea travel.

Never straightforward. Should have taken the land route.'

The other officer, a tall, slender man with a curly mop of dark hair, laughed and slapped his stout comrade on the shoulder. 'I thought I was the impatient one! Easy there, Macro, we'll still reach Rome long before we ever could if we had gone by land.'

'You've changed your tune. Thought you were the one who hated the sea.'

'I'm not fond of it, but I have my reasons for wanting to reach Rome as soon as I can.'

'No doubt.' Centurion Macro winked, with a faint nod towards the senator's daughter. 'I'll just be glad to get a new posting. Back with the legions, permanently. The gods know we've done enough to earn it, Cato, my friend. Two years on the eastern frontier. I've had my fill of heat, sand and thirst. Next time I want a nice cushy post somewhere in Gaul. Somewhere I can rest a while.'

'That's what you say now.' Cato laughed. 'But I know you, Macro.

You'd be bored witless before the month was out.'

'I don't know. I'd like to get back to some proper soldiering. No more doing the dirty work of the imperial palace for me.'

Cato nodded with feeling. Ever since they had carried out their first mission for Narcissus, the emperor's private secretary and head of the imperial spy network, Macro and Cato had faced perils fromevery quarter, besides the usual dangers of being soldiers. Cato's expression hardened. 'I fear that's rather out of our control. The more problems we solve, the greater the chance that we'll be called on again.'

'Ain't that the truth,' Macro muttered. 'Shit…'

Then, remembering that the senator and his daughter were present, he glanced at them apologetically and cleared his throat.

'Sorry, miss. Pardon my Gallic.'

The senator smiled. 'We've heard worse in recent months, Centurion Macro. In fact I think we have be come rather used to the rough ways of soldiers. Otherwise I'd hardly countenance the attention Cato has been showing my daughter, eh?'

She grinned. 'Don't worry, Father, I'll tame him sure enough.'

Cato smiled as she took his arm and gave it an affectionate squeeze. The captain looked at them and scratched his chin.

'Getting married then, Miss Julia?'

She nodded. 'As soon as we return to Rome.'

'Damn, had hoped to ask for your hand myself,' the captain joked.

He examined Cato briefly. The centurion's features were unmarked by the scars one tended to see on the faces of experienced soldiers.

He was also, by far, the youngest centurion the Greek sea captain had ever met, barely in his twenties, and he could not help wondering if such a man could only have been promoted to the rank through the patronage of a powerful friend. But the medallions fixed to the centurion's harness spoke of real achievements, hard won. Clearly there was far more to Centurion Cato than the captain had first thought. By contrast, Centurion Macro looked every inch the hard fighting man. Shorter by a head, but built like a bull, with well-muscled limbs on which numerous scars clearly showed. Some fifteen years older than his comrade, he had cropped dark hair and piercing brown eyes, yet the creases in his face hinted at a humorous side, should a suitable occasion arise.

The captain turned his attention back to the younger officer, with a touch of envy. If he married into a senatorial family, then Centurion Cato was set up for the rest of his life. Money, social position and career preferment would be his for the taking. That said, it was clear to the captain that the affection between the young centurion and the senator's daughter was real enough. At the end of each day the two of them were on deck to watch the sun set, arms around each other as they gazed across the sparkling waves.

As evening approached the Horus steered parallel to the coast, passing one of the bays that the captain had be come familiar with in the long years that he served aboard merchant vessels sailing the length and breadth of the Mediterranean. While the sun slipped below the horizon, brilliantly gilding the edges of the island's mountains and hills, those on deck stared towards the shore. A large agricultural estate lay close to the sea, and in the gathering dusk, long lines of slaves returned from their labours in the fields, groves and vineyards. Shuffling wearily, they were herded back into their compound by overseers with whips and clubs.

Cato felt Julia tremble at his side and turned to her.' Cold?'

'No. It's just that.' She indicated the last of the slaves entering the compound, and then the gates were shut and barred. 'A terrible existence for any man or woman.'

'But you have slaves at home.'

'Of course, but they are well cared for and have a degree of liberty in Rome. Not like those poor souls. Worked hard from first light to last. Treated no better than farm animals.'

Cato thought a moment before responding. 'That is the common lot of slaves. Whether they work on estates like that one, or in mines, or construction sites. It is only a small portion of them that are lucky enough to live in households like yours, or even to have the chance to train in the gladiator camps.'

'Gladiators?' Julia look ed at him with raised eyebrows.

'Lucky? How could you consider anyone lucky who suffered such a fate?'

Cato shrugged.' The training is hard, but once that's done they don't have it so bad. Their owners take good care of them and the best fighters make small fortunes and enjoy the high life.'

'As long as they survive in the arena.'

'True, but they risk no more than any man in the legions, and have a far more comfortable life than most. If

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