As follows is the first chapter of Mauretania, The second book in The Middle Empire Series. The book in its entirety can be downloaded in the Downloads section.
The ships moved ghost-like over the swell; silent, almost invisible. Their masts, struck to the decks, etched no silhouette against the moonless sky. The tholes, filled with cloth, dampened any sound of the oars. With the tide approaching flood, the raiders would have several hours before they would find themselves stranded when it ebbed.
One of the eight ships edged forward, feeling its way toward the beach, where small combers advanced and retreated on the sloping sands. Beyond the dunes were the lights of a town, but the night was advanced, and most of the small villas were dark. Near the water’s edge a light gleamed, disappeared, then sparkled again.
A large man in the prow of the first boat whispered to a companion, and the oars dipped into the water, driving the ship toward the beach. The other seven ships followed. The man wore a long robe with half armor. He carried a small, rounded shield and a long, slightly curved blade. As the ship nudged the beach he slipped over the side into waist-deep water and waded ashore.
Another man loomed out of the darkness.
“Are there soldiers?” the large man asked.
“Only half a century,” the man on the beach answered.
“Has the gate been silenced?” asked the large man.
There was no response for a moment. Then the man on the beach said, “No. You will have to take the gate yourself.”
“You have failed me,” rebuked the large man.
“I am a merchant, Juba, not a soldier,” the man on the beach said, his voice muted but sharp with anger. “I said there were slaves to be taken, and rich looting as well. It is not my job to provide them to you on a platter. You have more than enough men to take this town.”
The large man glanced to either side. Men were pouring off the ships and gathering in a ragged crowd just below the crest of the dunes. They had been instructed to remain silent, and for the most part they were, though there was an occasional “clank” as a shield collided with a breastplate or a helmet.
A small, lithe man carrying a bow appeared at his elbow.
“Xanthippus, go with your archers and take the main gate. This man here will show you where it is. I will send Matho and soldiers with you to take it. Make sure no one escapes to give a warning. Hold the gate until I call for you,” Juba said. “Now go!”
But the lithe man remained standing at his shoulder.
“All the loot will be divided equally,” said Juba. “You and your men will not be the poorer for this. After me, you will have the pick of the first five slaves.”
The lithe man nodded and vanished.
By now all the men were ashore and tension was building. The large man strode up the beach and plunged into their midst. They gathered around him and he waited until there was absolute silence.
“Hear me, brothers,” he said. “This is a town filled with rich Romans and their slaves. There are only a handful of soldiers. But we must strike quickly. Take young women and children. Kill the men and the old. And take only what you can carry. Everything will be divided equally when we return home, so don’t get greedy. Pay attention to the sky! When it turns gray, head back to the ships. We wait for no one. Go!”
This last word was delivered at close to a shout, and the mass of men turned and trotted toward the small resort town.
Aelia Dasumi woke briefly. A noise—probably drunken vigiles carousing on the beach—had wakened her. She stretched on her couch and sighed. How had she ever let herself be talked into coming to this dreary and boring little town? Because she was a good friend, she reminded herself. Her cousin Faustina was in deep mourning for her latest failed love and had written a tearful letter asking her to visit. So she came, and here she was, counting the days until she could return to Corduba and being awakened by a bunch of drunken men.
She turned over and composed herself to fall back to sleep.
But the shouting only grew louder.
Angrily, Aelia rose from her couch and called for the night slave. The woman appeared dressed in a light shift, looking confused. Clearly she had been sleeping. If Aelia said anything about her transgression to Faustina, the woman would be beaten. Aelia stared at her for a long moment, a look that brought the woman fully awake. She looked terrified.
“Go find out what that noise is about,” Aelia said, “and explain to them that they have awakened a Dasumi and have placed their futures in grave peril.”
The woman curtsied and, throwing a shawl over her shoulders, called for a slave boy to bring a lamp. Both left quietly by the front door.
Aelia sat for a while in the atrium and watched the fountain, but she was restless and upset and she began to pace the front entrance. As the noise escalated, so did her rage. Finally she flung open the front door and stalked through the small garden, with its ugly little bench and sad looking pots of flowers, and marched into the street.
The house was in the middle of a long block that led to the sea, and a crowd of men was moving closer making a terrible racket. She crossed her arms and tried to think of exactly the right words delivered in exactly the right tone of imperious anger that would send them slinking away like a pack of beaten dogs.
Suddenly she saw an older man dragged into the street from an open door. The man was trying to say something when one of the men grasped him by his hair and lifted him off the ground. Another swung a sword and cut the man’s head from his body. The headless corpse collapsed in the road, one of its arms twitching for a moment. A great cheer of laughter went up from the men.
Aelia stood transfixed by the scene, trying to put it in a context that made sense. Gradually the noises and crashes came into focus, as did the men. They were not vigiles, nor were they soldiers. Neither would be dragging citizens out in the middle of the night and murdering them. That might happen in Rome, but not Hispania, where everyone had learned that killing enemies was bad for business.
The man holding the head glanced up the street, and he and Aelia locked eyes. He was tall, with a full beard, a helmet, breastplate and a long robe. He flung the head over his shoulder, leaned forward, and with an enormous smile, beckoned her to him.
She sprinted for the door of the villa, slamming it behind her and bolting it. “Household,” she cried, “we are under attack.”
Within moments slaves crowded into the atrium. Aelia took a deep breath. It was important not to show panic in front of slaves. The armor that walled off slave from master was thin.
“The town is under attack. You male slaves must arm yourselves. The women and children should go out through the back entrance and flee to the barracks,” she said calmly.
The men looked at one another. “There are no weapons in this house, my lady,” said one, “we are not allowed weapons.”
At this moment her cousin Faustina appeared, looking disheveled and hung over, wearing a thin linen shift. “What is going on, Aelia, why have I been wakened?” she asked.
“The town is being attacked, cousin. I think they are slavers from Mauretania Tingitana. There have been several raids in the south this past year, but never in the west,” Aelia told her.
“Slavers!” Faustina shrieked. “They will murder us all.”
“They will only kill the men, Mistress,” said a slave woman reaching out to comfort her.
“How dare you speak to me without permission,” Faustina screamed, lashing a backhand across the woman’s face, drawing blood from the slave’s nose and upper lip.
The woman quailed, touched her bloodied face and fled toward the back of the house. Several of the other slaves looked at one another and silently followed.
“Come back here, you swine!” shouted Faustina, “I will have you flogged to death! You will hang crucified on our doorstep!”
Suddenly there was a thunderous pounding on the door.
Faustina made small gulping sounds, putting her hands over her cheeks. “What will we do?” she whispered to Aelia, as if somehow talking quietly would make the pounding go away.
Aelia was terrified as well, but she reminded herself who she was and what was expected of her. “Quickly, help push this chest in front of the door.” But the chest that stood on one wall of the entrance way was as heavy as lead, and her cousin was utterly useless for doing anything but whimpering.
While they were futilely trying to wrestle with the huge piece of furniture, there was a sharp crack from the door. Aelia watched with horror as the bar across the double door bent and then split, the doors bulging inwards from the pressure of the men outside.
Faustina turned to her; her mouth contorted with fear, and let forth an unearthly sound that would have frozen the Medusa in her tracks.
“By the Gods, woman, run!” Aelia ordered. “Out the back.”
Her cousin stood frozen for a moment, and then fled toward the back of the house with a parting wail.
At that moment, the doors gave way, and several men smashed their way into the front entrance.
Aelia dashed to follow Faustina, tipping over a large vase as she went by. She heard a crash behind her, and a man cursed. The hallway had four rooms opening off it, one of them Aelia’s bedroom. She raced down the hall and pulled on the door that led to the back entrance to the house.
It wouldn’t move. Her idiot cousin had bolted it, trapping Aelia in the corridor. She turned and ran back the way she had come, heading for her room, but a man was coming down the hall. Either her pursuer had recovered his balance or another had taken his place. He was closer to her room than she was. Her only hope—if there was one—was to barricade herself in her room.
There was a household shrine to the goddess Carna set into the wall near the locked rear door which held a small statue and some candle stubs. Snatching the little goddess, she ran straight at the man. Her charge drew a look of surprise from him and he stopped, cautiously raising his sword. Women do not normally run at armed men, particularly such a willowy specimen as Aelia. The hesitation gave Aelia just enough time to hurl the statue at him. He raised his left hand to protect his face, but the little figurine was stone and Aelia’s long limbs lent it considerable force. It slid by his guard and smashed into his nose with a very satisfying “thunk.”
As he staggered backwards, she whipped by him, slammed her door and threw the bolt. Almost immediately men began assailing the door, which soon began to give way under the siege.
Aelia looked desperately around for something to defend herself with. She flung open a chest and grabbed a dagger she had purchased for her brother two days before. It was more ornamental than practical, with an intricate, inlaid handle, but the blade was long and sharp. She looked at it for a long moment. She knew what she should do: avoid dishonor at all costs, and plunge it into her breast.
But Aelia Dasumi was, above all things, a practical person, although one would not know it by looking at her. Men said she was the most beautiful woman in Hispania, and Aelia did not debate them. Since she was also wealthy beyond imagining, she spent vast amounts of money on clothes, jewelry and make-up. All of this made her intensely fond of her life, and since she was not certain that there was anything on the other side, she was not eager to depart this one.
Slipping the dagger behind her back, she tucked it into her belt. Then she closed her eyes for a moment, composed herself, and said a short prayer to Fortuna.
The door shattered in pieces and a broad-shouldered man forced himself into the room, a sword in one hand, and a small round shield in the other.
“Who is it that dares disturb Aelia Dasumi?” she said, frostily.
The broad-shouldered man grinned, and made a mocking little bow. “Himilco at your service, lady, and we have come to make a good deal of money out of those skinny limbs of yours.”
Another man pushed past Himilco, blood running down his face and staining his robe, clearly the man whom Aelia had struck with the statue. “No money out of this one. I am going to fuck her like a dog and then skin her alive. That will take some time, bitch, and you’ll be begging for death all through it.”
Aelia saw the man meant it. Without a moment of hesitation, she whipped out the dagger and drove straight for his heart. The move was so quick that the man who had issued the threat had no time to react. The only thing that saved him was Himilco, who whipped up his shield and deflected the dagger. Reaching across her, he clamped her wrist in a grip of steel and twisted it until she gasped and dropped the knife.
With a roar of rage, the man she had struck with the statue reached for her, but Himilco shoved him aside. “This one goes back with us. She will bring a fine ransom or sell for a fortune in the south,” he said.
“She is mine! And she dies in agony! I saw her first,” screamed the man.
“Yes, Bogud, and you would be dead if I hadn’t stopped her from running that pretty little blade though your heart,” said Himilco mildly.
Bogud started to protest again, but Himilco cut him off. “Break down that door at the end of the hall,” he said. Bogud hesitated, looking for a moment as if he were going to continue the argument, but Himilco had a quiet authority about him. The two stared at one another and finally Bogud broke eye contact and turned to go. At the door he glanced back at Aelia with a look of pure hate. “You will pay for this, Roman whore.”
As Bogud left to begin the assault on the hall door, Himilco turned back to Aelia. “If you don’t behave, Roman, I will give you to him,” he said. “Now, you wouldn’t have any other surprises concealed about you, would you?”
Aelia shook her head.
“Let’s be sure, shall we,” said Himilco, grabbing the front of her silk shift and tearing it from her body. For a moment she thought to cover her nakedness, but she instead put her arms out and slowly turned to show she was concealing nothing.
Himilco grinned. “Well done, Roman. Juba will want to have a look at you. Who knows, he may even keep you for himself. You could do a lot worse than that.”
“May I put on some clothes,” Aelia asked coldly.
“That thing you were wearing will do fine,” said Himilco, calling back over his shoulder for one of his men. When the man came in, Himilco told him to take Aelia directly to the beach. When the man protested that it would cut into his time to loot, Himilco said, “I think this one is worth more than anything you could carry in a sack. You’ll get your cut. Everyone has to pool their loot in any case.”
The man started to grumble again, but Himilco cut him short. “This one is valuable. Anything happens to her, you answer to me, is that clear?” The man nodded unhappily.
Aelia had put on her shift and was waiting to see how all this would come out, resigned that there seemed to be no way out.
“And you, lady whoever you said you were, are not going to give anyone any trouble at all,” said Himilco. “If you do, Adhubal here is going to give you to Bogud, and that will a very bad thing for you. Do we understand each other?”
Aelia nodded resignedly and quietly followed the man out of the house. She heard several long, agonized screams from the house. The voice sounded like her cousin.
Xanthippus the archer was deeply angry. The fools that Juba had sent to take the main gate had botched the whole thing. When Xanthippus urged stealth, they laughed at his timidity. “Cretians should stick to their bows and let men do the fighting,” the leader said, and instead of trying to surprise the soldiers at the gate, they had charged the eight men.
Even outnumbered five to one, the soldiers formed a quick ring with their backs to the gate and held off the attackers. While the mob of slavers was slashing away, the Romans were using their short swords with lethal efficiency, stabbing through their shields, and using the latter to keep the attackers off balance.
With the crowd of attackers blocking their view, it was almost impossible for the archers to get a clear shot. But finally the combination of numbers and the few arrows that got through to their targets, started to tell, and the ring of Legionnaires began to contract.
A Roman officer broke off from the rest of the soldiers and sprinted up the stairs. At first Xanthippus thought the legionnaires were running for it, but instead the four remaining soldiers attacked, driving their enemy back. By the time Xanthippus had shifted his target, the officer had reached the ledge surrounding the wall, and swinging his sword rang a great strip of iron that hung down from a tripod. He hit it three times before Xanthippus’s arrow struck him in the back. The man staggered, but kept ringing what was clearly an alarm.
The Cretian pointed out the officer to his men who finally bought the officer down, his back pin-cushioned with arrows.
A combination of exhaustion and numbers had finally overrun the Romans at the gate, and one by one they fell, the last flinging himself at his tormentors and taking one of them down with him.
The attackers were cheering—although Xanthippus noticed that there were a good deal fewer of them than when they had initially charged the gate. Ignoring the celebration, the archer ran up the stairs to the wall and put his hand on the iron sheet, which was still reverberating. In spite of half a dozen arrows in his back, the officer was still alive. Xanthippus ignored him.
Notching an arrow, he moved toward a small watchtower that overlooked the gate, but it was deserted. When he returned, he found the leader of the attackers cutting off the officer’s head and holding it aloft to the cheers from his men below.
Idiot! He had lost close to 10 men, the entire town was alerted to the attack, and the fool was celebrating. Xanthippus’s gaze swept to the east and froze. In the middle of the blackness, a red spark stood out, slowly growing in size as he watched it.
The leader approached him holding the officer’s head aloft, grinning. “That’s how men fight, Cretian.”
“You will soon have another opportunity to demonstrate your skill at battle again, Matho,” said the archer, pointing toward the red spark.
The man looked out to the east. “Afraid of fire, are you?” he said.
“That’s not a fire, you fool, it’s a signal. A Roman Army signal. We will soon have a lot more of those fellows you fought at the gate to contend with,” said Xanthippus
“I don’t like your tone, little man,” Matho said, tossing the officer’s head over the wall, and delivered a backhand blow that staggered Xanthippus and drive him into the wall. Grabbing the Cretian by his tunic the Mauri said, “You archers are not real fighters, just girls with bows. Call me a fool again, and I will toss your head over the wall as well.”
Xanthippus controlled his response but decided at that moment that Matho had to die. No Cretian could absorb a blow like that and not exact revenge. But not just then. Carfully keeping the rage and humiliation out of his voice, he changed the subject. “Juba has to know that there may be Roman soldiers on the way. He will be very unhappy if he is surprised.”
That gave Matho pause, and he dropped his grip of the archer’s tunic. Leaning over the parapet, he bellowed to one of his men. “Maharbal, go tell Juba that the Cretian girls think that there might be Romans on the way.”
The man hesitated. Bringing bad news was always a dicey business, but a look from Matho killed his protests and he ran back toward the main part of town.
“There, happy now, Cretian?” the leader said.
“I think I should put my men on the wall up here in case there is an assault on the gate,” replied Xanthippus.
“Do whatever you want,” said Matho dismissively, and went down the stairs to his men.
Xanthippus waved for his men to come up, and the 12 bowmen came up the stairs Matho had gone down. They had all seen the blow and their faces were carefully neutral. He took them aside near the deserted watchtower and explained the situation.
“We should leave,” said one. “We can’t fight legionnaires. Let these asses hold the gate against the Roman Army.”
“If we try to leave they will kill us,” said Xanthippus. “We must bide our time. But each of you pick a target and keep your eye on him. Once they send their wounded away, the numbers will not be so uneven.” The men all nodded and spread out along the wall.
Xanthippus examined the odds. The attackers’ losses numbered eight killed and a dozen wounded, some probably fatally. That left the archers outnumbered 20 to 13. On the other hand, Juba might send reinforcements. It was time for patience.