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A dark, chilling psychological thriller from the number one bestselling author of the Emperor series. Blackwater was published as part of the Quick Reads. ISBN ,, tutorials, pdf, ebook, torrent, downloads Conn Iggulden, my favourite author. Conqueror (Conqueror, Book 5).


Conn iggulden conqueror torrent

Опубликовано в Hy tek one torrent | Октябрь 2, 2012

conn iggulden conqueror torrent

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Holding his breath, he threw it, and the raven took off with a scream of indignation. It flapped its wings once again and landed in the slender branches of a young sapling near Gaius, who ran at it without thinking. As Marcus scrambled down, Gaius shoved at the sapling and felt the whole thing give with a sudden crack, pinning the bird in the leaves and branches on the ground. With Gaius pressing it all down, Marcus was able to reach in and hold the heavy bird, gripping it tightly in his two hands.

He raised it triumphantly and then hung on desperately as the raven struggled to escape. He's strong," Marcus shouted, and Gaius added his own hands to the struggling bundle. Suddenly an agonizing pain shot through him.

The beak was long and curved like a spear of black wood. It jabbed at his hand, catching and gripping the piece of soft flesh between thumb and first finger. Gaius yelped. It's got my hand, Marcus. Let it go. This raven is ours. We caught it in the wild, like hunters. Gaius gasped in relief and backed off hurriedly, holding his hands against his groin and doubling over. Ravens are intelligent, I've heard. He'll learn tricks and come with us when we go to the Campus Martius.

Something warlike," Gaius replied, in between sucking his torn skin. Someone has an owl. You remember when she found out about the fox? We could put him in there. What do ravens eat? They scavenge battlefields, unless that's crows. We can get a few scraps from the kitchens and see what he takes, anyway. That won't be a problem. Tubruk was talking to three carpenters who were to repair part of the estate roof.

He spotted the boys as they walked into the estate yard, and motioned them over to him. They looked at each other, wondering if they could run, but Tubruk wouldn't let them get more than a few paces, for all his apparent inattention as he turned back to the workers. Gaius could only nod as they approached the group of men. A raven? Must be a sick one if you caught it. Followed him and brought him down," Marcus said, his voice defiant.

Tubruk smiled as if he understood, and reached out to stroke the bird's long beak. Its energy seemed to have gone and it panted almost like a dog, revealing a slender tongue between the hard blades. What are you going to do with him? We're going to train him as a pet, like a hawk. A hawk is raised from a chick by an expert, and even they stay wild. The best trainer can lose one every now and then if it flies too far from him. Zeus is fully grown. If you keep him, he'll die.

We'll feed him and fly him on a string. He can't stand walls around him. Especially a tiny space like one of the chicken coops. It will break his spirit and, day by day, he will pull his own feathers out in misery. He won't eat, he'll just hurt himself until he dies. Zeus here will choose death over captivity.

The kindest thing you can do for him is to let him go. I don't think you could have caught him unless he was sick, so he might be dying anyway, but at least let him spend his last days in the woods and the air, where he belongs. Together, they stood gazing down the hill. Marcus raised and opened his hands, and Zeus heaved himself into the air, spreading large black wings and fighting for height. He screamed frustration at them until he was just a dot in the sky over the woods.

Then they saw him descend and disappear. Tubruk reached out and held the necks of the two boys in his rough hands. Now there are a number of chores to do, and I couldn't find you earlier, so they've piled up waiting for your attention.

From the beginning, they were both treated equally, with Marcus also receiving the training necessary to run a complex estate, albeit a minor one. In addition to continuing the formal Latin that had been drummed into them since birth, they were taught about famous battles and tactics as well as how to manage men and handle money and debts. When Suetonius left to be an officer in an African legion the following year, both Gaius and Marcus had begun to learn Greek rhetoric and the skills of debate that they would need if, as young senators later on, they ever chose to prosecute or defend a citizen on a matter of law.

Although the three hundred members of the Senate met only twice each lunar month, Gaius's father, Julius, remained in Rome for longer and longer periods as the Republic struggled to deal with new colonies and its swiftly growing wealth and power. For months, the only adults Gaius and Marcus would see were Aurelia and the tutors, who arrived at the main house at dawn and left with the sun sinking behind them and denarii jingling in their pockets.

Tubruk was always there too, a friendly presence who stood no nonsense from the boys. Before Suetonius had left, the old gladiator had walked the five miles to the main house of the neighboring estate and waited eleven hours, from dawn to dusk, to be admitted to see the eldest son of the house.

He didn't tell Gaius what had transpired, but had returned with a smile and ruffled Gaius's hair with his big hand before going down to the stables to see to the new mares as they came into season. Of all the tutors, Gaius and Marcus enjoyed the hours with Vepax the best. He was a young Greek, tall and thin in his toga. He always arrived at the estate on foot and carefully counted the coins he earned before walking back to the city.

They met with him for two hours each week in a small room Gaius's father had set aside for the lessons. It was a bare place, with a stone-flagged floor and unadorned walls. With the other tutors, droning through the verses of Homer and Latin grammar, the two boys often fidgeted on the wooden benches, or drifted in concentration until the tutor noticed and brought them back with sharp smacks from the cane.

Most were strict and it was difficult to get away with much with only the two of them to take up the master's attention. One time, Marcus had used his stylus to draw a picture of a pig with a tutor's beard and face. He had been caught trying to show it to Gaius and had to hold out his hand for the stick, suffering miserably through three sharp blows.

Vepax didn't carry a cane. All he ever had with him was a heavy cloth bag full of clay tablets and figures, some blue and some red to show different sides. After a year of this, their first task was to recognize the structure and name the generals involved. They knew Vepax would not limit himself to Roman battles; sometimes the tiny horses and legionary figures represented Parthia or ancient Greece or Carthage. Knowing Vepax was Greek himself, the boys had pushed the young man to show them the battles of Alexander, thrilled by the legends and what he had achieved at such a young age.

At first, Vepax had been reluctant, not wanting to be seen to favor his own history, but he had allowed himself to be persuaded and showed them every major battle where records and maps survived. For the Greek wars, Vepax never opened a book, placing and moving each piece from memory.

He told the boys the names of the generals and the key players in each conflict as well as the history and politics when they had a direct bearing on the day. He made the little clay pieces come alive for Marcus and Gaius, and every time it came to the end of the two hours, they would look longingly at them as he packed them away in his bags, slowly and carefully. One day, as they arrived, they found most of the little room covered in the clay characters. A huge battle had been set out and Gaius counted the blue characters quickly, then the red, multiplying it in his head as he had been taught by the arithmetic tutor.

The red is… the red is Roman, judging by the heavy infantry placed to the front in legion squares. They are supported by cavalry on the right and left wings, but they are matched by the blue cavalry facing them. There are slingers and spearmen on the blue side, but I can't see any archers, so missile attacks will be over a very short range.

They seem roughly matched. It should be a long and difficult battle. What if I told you the blues were a mixed group, made up of Gauls, Spaniards, Numidians, and Carthaginians? Would that make a difference to the outcome? But where are his famous elephants? Didn't you have elephants in your bag? He managed to find more later and they were terrifying at the charge, but here he had to make do without them.

He is outnumbered by two legions. His force is mixed where the Roman one is unified. What other factors might affect the outcome? His cavalry could smash—" Vepax waved a hand gently. The weather was cool and clear. Hannibal should have lost. Would you like to see how he won?

Everything was against the blue forces. He looked up. Today I will need both of you to make the battle move as it did once before. Take the Roman side, Gaius. Marcus and I will take Hannibal's force. Every man who fought in the battle is dust, every sword rusted away, but the lessons are still there to be learned.

Even with each piece representing five hundred, they took up most of the available room. Line by line you will advance straight at the enemy, allowing no deviation and no slackness in discipline. Your infantry is superb and should do well against the ranks of foreign swordsmen. They must not be left behind or you could be flanked.

We will advance to meet them, and our cavalry will engage theirs on the wings, holding them. Gaius and Marcus imagined the snorts of the horses and the war cries splitting the air. On the floor in front of them, the Roman legions pushed back Hannibal's center, which buckled before them, close to rout. He paused and looked over the whole field.

The cavalry were stationary, held in bloody conflict with the enemy. His mouth dropped as Marcus and Vepax continued to move pieces and suddenly the plan was clear to him. You have seen a danger that neither Paulus nor Varro saw until it was too late. Move your men forward, the battle must be played out. The legions marched through the Carthaginian forces, and the enemy let them in, falling back quickly and without haste, losing as few men as possible to the advancing line. Hannibal's forces were moving from the back of the field to the sides, swelling the trap, and, after what Vepax said was only a couple of hours, the entire Roman force was submerged in the enemy on three sides, which slowly closed behind them until they were caught in a box of Hannibal's making.

The Roman cavalry were still held by equally skilled forces, and the final scene needed little explanation to reveal the horror of it. It was annihilation on a scale rarely seen before or since. Most battles leave many alive, at least those who run away, but these Romans were surrounded on all sides and had nowhere to flee to.

Next week I will show you what the Romans learned from this defeat and others at the hands of Hannibal. Although they were unimaginative here, they brought in a new commander, known for his innovation and daring.

He met Hannibal at the battle of Zama fourteen years later, and the outcome was very different. His given name was Publius Scipio, but because of the battles he won against Carthage, he was known as Scipio Africanus. He could handle any of the horses, even the difficult ones that required a brutal hand. They seemed to calm at his touch and respond to him.

Only one refused to let him remain in the saddle, and Gaius had been thrown eleven times when Tubruk sold the beast before the struggle killed one or the other of them. To some extent, Tubruk controlled the purse of the estate while Gaius's father was away. He could decide where the profits from grain and livestock would be best spent, using his judgment. It was a great trust and a rare one. It wasn't up to Tubruk, however, to engage specialist fighters to teach the boys the art of war.

That was the decision of the father—as was every other aspect of their upbringing. Under Roman law, Gaius's father could even have had the boys strangled or sold into slavery if they displeased him. His power in his household was absolute, and his goodwill was not to be risked. Julius returned home for his son's birthday feast. Tubruk attended him as he bathed away the dust of the journey in the mineral pool.

Despite being ten years older than Tubruk, the years sat well on his sun-dark frame as he eased through the water. Steam rose in wisps as a sudden rush of fresh hot water erupted from a pipe into the placid waters of the bath. Tubruk noted the signs of health to himself and was pleased. In silence, he waited for Julius to finish the slow immersion and rest on the submerged marble steps near the inflow pipe, where the water was shallow and warmest.

Julius lay back against the coldness of the pool ledges and raised an eyebrow at Tubruk. Tubruk stood stiffly and recited the profits and losses of the previous month. He kept his eyes fixed on the far wall and spoke fluently of minute problems and successes without once referring to notes. At last, he came to the end and waited in silence.

After a moment, the blue eyes of the only man who'd ever employed him without owning him opened once again and fixed him with a look that had not been melted by the heat of the pool. Was there a point in telling this man that Aurelia had worsened still further?

She had been beautiful once, before childbirth had left her close to death for months. I have had to keep the boys away some days, when the mood has come on her. They take my aureus pieces without a qualm, but she worsens every time I see her! Some things must simply be borne, he knew. The whip falls and hurts and you must quietly wait for it to fall no more. Sometimes she would tear her clothes into rags and sit huddled in a corner until hunger drove her out of her private rooms.

Other days, she would be almost the woman he had met when he first came to the estate, but given to long periods of distraction. She would be discussing a crop and suddenly, as if another voice had spoken, she would tilt her head to listen, and you might as well have left the room for all she remembered you. Another rush of hot water disturbed the slow-dripping silence, and Julius sighed like escaping steam.

Hire one of those and dismiss the fools who do her so little good. If any of them claim that only their skills have kept her from being even worse, have him flogged and dumped on the road back to the city. Try a midwife. Women sometimes understand themselves better than we do—they have so many ailments that men do not.

Without the personality, the submerged frame could have been any other Roman. He held himself like a soldier, and thin white lines marked the scars of old actions. He was not a man to be crossed, and Tubruk knew he had a ferocious reputation in the Senate. He kept his interests small, but guarded those interests fiercely. As a result, the powermongers were not troubled by him and were too lazy to challenge the areas where he was strong.

It kept the estate wealthy and they would be able to employ the most expensive foreign doctors that Tubruk could find. Wasted money, he was sure, but what was money for if not to use it when you saw the need? The soil there is perfect for a good red. Two hours after he had entered, Julius smiled at last. We prosper and stay strong. In all the talk, not once had Julius asked after his own health or happiness. It was a relationship of trust, not between equals, but between an employer and one whose competence he respected.

Tubruk was no longer a slave, but he was a freedman and could never have the total confidence of those born free. I have been distracted from my duty as a father to some extent, but there is no greater exercise to a man's talents than the upbringing of his son. I want to be proud of him and I worry that my absences, which are likely to get worse, will be the breaking of the boy.

I know of them and some have been recommended to me. I have even inspected the products of this training, visiting city villas to see the young generation. I was not impressed, Tubruk. I saw young men infected with this new philosophical learning, where too much emphasis is placed on improving the mind and not enough on the body and the heart. What good is the ability to play with logic if your fainting soul shrinks away from hardship? No, the fashions in Rome will produce only weaklings, with few exceptions, as I see it.

I want Gaius trained by people on whom I can depend—you, Tubruk. I'd trust no other with such a serious task. I know what I know, but I don't know how to pass it on. Tubruk never spoke lightly. Have him run and ride for hours each day, over and over until he is fit to represent me.

We will find others to teach him how to kill and command men in battle. What about him? I promised his father when he died. His mother was never fit to have the boy; it was her running away that practically killed the old man. She was always too young for him. The last I heard of her, she was little better than a party whore in one of the inner districts, so he stays in my house.

He and Gaius are still friends, I take it? They're always in trouble. They will learn discipline from now on. Gaius's eyes were bright with excitement at what he'd heard. He grinned as he turned to Marcus and dropped the smile as he saw his friends pale face and set mouth. Marcus's eyes glinted dangerously and Gaius choked back his first joking reply.

I'm sure she isn't. She ran away and left me. I hope she's a slave and dying of lung-rot. Gaius sighed and rejected the idea of going after him. Marcus would probably go down to the stables and sit in the straw and the shadows for a few hours. If he was followed too soon, there would be angry words and maybe blows. It was his nature and there was no changing it.

Gaius pressed his head again to the crack between the door and the frame that allowed him to hear the two men talk of his future. It should be a mighty spectacle. All of Rome will be there. Not all the gladiators will be indentured slaves—some are freedmen who have been lured back with gold coins.

Renius will be there, so the gossips say. He was fighting when I was a young man myself," Julius muttered in disbelief. Some of the men live too richly for their purses, if you understand me. Fame would allow him large debts, but everything has to be paid back in the end. It has been so long, though. I can't believe he'll be fighting again. You will get four tickets then; my interest is definitely aroused. The boys will enjoy a trip into the city proper.

He should be cheap if he is bleeding a little," Tubruk said wryly. I'd hate to see him go out. He was unstoppable when I was young. I saw him fight in exhibitions against four or five men. One time they even blindfolded him against two.

He cut them down in two blows. The cloth he used allowed in enough light to see the outlines of shapes. That was all the edge he needed. After all, his opponents thought he was blind. The circus will be the place to find them, but I will want your eye for the sound of limb and honor. I will send a message tonight to collect the tickets on the estate purse.

If there is nothing else? I know how skillfully you keep this place afloat. While my senatorial colleagues fret at how their wealth is eroded, I can be calm and smile at their discomfort. Tubruk was pleased to note the strength still in the hand.

The old bull had a few years in him yet. Gaius scrambled away from the door and ran down to see Marcus in the stables. Before he had gone more than a little way, he paused and leaned against a cool white wall. What if he was still angry? No, surely the prospect of circus tickets—with unchained lions no less! With renewed enthusiasm and the sun on his back, he charged down the slopes to the outbuildings of teak and lime plaster that housed the estate's supply of workhorses and oxen.

Somewhere, he heard his mother's voice calling his name, but he ignored it, as he would a bird's shrill scream. It was a sound that washed over him and left him untouched. It lay in the damp leaves, stiff and dark, and it was Marcus who saw it first, his depression and anger lifting with the find. Gaius crouched with him. The chill of the woods seemed to get through to both of them at the same time, and Gaius shivered slightly.

He was just looking for a place to die. The contrast saddened both of them. All the fight was gone and now the head lay limply, as if held only by skin. The beak hung open and the eyes were shriveled, hollow pits. Marcus continued to stroke the feathers with his thumb. We could build a pyre for him and pour some of the oil over it. It would be a good send-off for him. He deserves something more than just being left to rot.

There's a lot of dry wood around here. I'll stay to make the pyre. He felt a strange solemnity come upon him, as if he were performing a religious rite. Slowly and carefully, he gathered dry sticks and built them into a square, starting with thicker branches that were long dead and building on layers of twigs and dry leaves. It seemed right not to rush. The woods were quiet as Gaius returned. He too was walking slowly, shielding the small flame of an oily wick where it protruded from an old kitchen lamp.

He found Marcus sitting on the dry path, with the black body of Zeus lying on a neat pile of dead wood. We'd better say the prayers now. He was a fighter and he died free," Marcus said, his voice steady and low. Gaius readied the oil for pouring. He held the wick clear, avoiding the little flame, and poured on the oil, drenching the bird and the wood in its slipperiness. Then he touched the flame to the pyre. For long seconds, nothing happened except for a faint sizzling, but then an answering flame spread and blazed with a sickly light.

The boys stood and Gaius placed the lamp on the path. They watched with interest as the feathers caught and burned with a terrible stink. The flames flickered over the body, and fat smoked and sputtered in the fire.

They waited patiently. Marcus nodded in silence. Flames grew again and most of the feathers had been burned away, except for those around the head and beak, which seemed obstinate. Finally, the last of the oil burned to nothing and the fire sank to glowing embers. The stick knocked the smoking thing right out of the ashes, and Marcus spent a few moments trying to roll it back in without success.

Where's the dignity in this? Let's just cover him in leaves. They were silent as they walked back to the estate, but the reverent mood was gone. The king of Mauretania had entertained the young senator while he commanded the Second Alaudae legion in Africa. To please him, King Bocchus sent a hundred lions and twenty of his best spearmen to the capital. With these as a core, Sulla had put together a program for five days of trials and excitement.

It was to be the largest circus ever arranged in Rome, and Cornelius Sulla had his reputation and status assured by the achievement. There were even calls raised in the Senate for there to be a more permanent structure to hold the games. The wooden benches bolted and pegged together for great events were unsatisfactory and really too small for the sort of crowds that wanted to see lions from the dark, unknown continent.

Plans for a vast circular amphitheater capable of holding water and staging sea battles were put forward, but the cost was huge and they were vetoed by the peoples tribunes as a matter of course. Gaius and Marcus trotted behind the two older men. Since Gaius's mother had become unwell, the boys were rarely allowed into the city proper anymore, as she fretted and rocked in misery at the thought of what could happen to her son in the vicious streets.

The noise of the crowd was like a blow, and their eyes were bright with interest. Most of the Senate would travel to the games in carriages, pulled or carried by slaves and horses. Gaius's father scorned this and chose to walk through the crowds. That said, the imposing figure of Tubruk beside him, fully armed as he was, kept the plebeians from shoving too rudely.

The mud of the narrow streets had been churned into a stinking broth by the huge throng, and after only a short time their legs were spattered almost to the knees by filth, their sandals covered. Every shop heaved with people as they passed, and there was always a crowd ahead and a mob behind pushing them on. Occasionally, Gaius's father would take side streets when the roads were blocked completely by shopkeepers' carts carrying their wares around the city.

These were packed with the poor, and beggars sat in doorways, blind and maimed, with their hands outstretched. The brick buildings loomed over them, five and six stories high, and once, Tubruk put a hand out to hold Marcus back as a bucket of slops was poured out of an open window into the street below. Gaius's father looked grim, but walked on without stopping, his sense of direction bringing them through the dark maze back onto the main streets to the circus.

On every street corner, jugglers and conjurors, clowns and snake charmers performed for thrown coins. That day, the pickings were slim, despite the huge crowds. Why waste your money on things you can see every day when the amphitheater was open?

He laughed at their wide-mouthed expressions. They move like horses at the charge when they want to, but with fangs and claws like iron nails. I am looking forward to seeing these black spearmen in action. It will be interesting to see if they can match our javelin throwers for accuracy," Julius said. They walked under the entrance arch and paused at a series of wooden tubs filled with water.

For a small coin, they had the mud and smell scrubbed from their legs and sandals. It was good to be clean again. With the help of an attendant, they found the seats reserved for them by one of the estate slaves, who'd traveled in the previous evening to await their arrival.

Once they were seated, the slave stood to walk the miles back to the estate. Tubruk passed him another coin to buy food for the journey, and the man smiled cheerfully, pleased to be away from the back-breaking labor of the fields for once. All around them sat the members of the patrician families and their slaves. Although there were only three hundred representatives in the Senate, there must have been close to a thousand others in that section. Rome's lawmakers had taken the day off for the first battles of the five-day run.

The sand was raked smooth in the vast pit; the wooden stands filled with thirty thousand of the classes of Rome. The morning heat built and built into a wall of discomfort, largely ignored by the people. You see where the gates are? We will all cheer for Sulla's cleverness in making such a spectacle possible.

Then there are four gladiatorial combats, to first blood only. One will follow that is to the death. Renius will give a demonstration of some sort and then the lions will roam 'the landscapes of their Africa,' whatever that means. Should be an impressive show.

I have never fought one, though. Tubruk says they are fearsome in battle. Tubruk leaned over to the boy. There's a lesson in there somewhere. Then he forgot about it as he tried to hear the voice of the man who had strode to the center of the sand. He had a trained voice, and the bowl of the amphitheater acted as a perfect reflector.

Nonetheless, part of his announcement was lost as people shuffled or whispered to their friends and were shushed. Gaius heard the words of the old gladiator as he leaned in close to his father. Gaius strained to see the man who rose from his seat and bowed. He too wore a simple toga, with an embroidered hem of gold.

He was sitting close enough for Gaius to see this really was a man who looked like a god. He had a strong, handsome face and golden skin. He waved and sat down, smiling at the pleasure of the crowds. Everyone settled back for the main excitement, conversations springing up all around.

Politics and finance were discussed. Cases being argued in law were raked and chewed over by the patricians. They were still the ultimate power in Rome and therefore the world. True, the people's tribunes, with their right to veto agreements, had taken some of the edge off their authority, but they still had the power of life and death over most of the citizens of Rome.

The first pair of fighters entered wearing tunics of blue and black. Neither was heavily armored, as this was a display of speed and skill rather than savagery. Men did die in these contests, but it was rare. After a salute to the organizer and sponsor of the games, they began to move, short swords held rigid and shields moving in hypnotic rhythms.

His footwork is excellent. Less than a minute later, the smaller man sidestepped an overextended lunge and drew his knife lightly over the other's stomach as he stepped through. Blood spilled as over the lip of a cup, and the audience erupted with cheers and curses.

Julius had earned two aurei for the one he'd wagered, and he pocketed the profit cheerfully. For each match that followed, he would ask Tubruk who would win as they began to feint and move. The odds sank after the start, of course, but Tubruk's eye was infallible that day. By the fourth match, all nearby spectators were craning to catch what Tubruk said and then shouting for the betting slaves to take their money.

Tubruk was enjoying himself. The odds favor the Corinthian fighter, Alexandros. He has never been stopped, but his opponent, from the south of Italy, is also fearful and has never been beaten to first blood. I cannot choose between them at this point. I have ten aurei ready for the wager— all our winnings and my original stakes. Your eye is perfect today. No one else in the area wanted to bet, as they all felt the luck of the moment and were content to wait for the signal from Tubruk.

They watched him, some with held breath, poised for the first signal. Gaius and Marcus looked at the crowd. The gates opened again and Alexandros and Enzo entered. The Roman, Enzo, wore a standard set of mail covering his right arm from hand to neck and a brass helmet above the darker iron scales. He carried a red shield with his left hand. His only other garments were a loincloth and wrappings of linen around his feet and ankles.

He had a powerful physique and carried few scars, although one puckered line marked his left forearm from wrist to elbow. He bowed to Cornelius Sulla and saluted the crowd first, before the foreigner. Alexandros moved well, balanced and assured as he came to the middle of the amphitheater. He was identically dressed, although his shield was stained blue. The Greek is not the same as the Italian. He has different and false gods. He believes things that no decent Roman would ever stand for.

The contest would begin with the sounding of a ram's horn. It was held in copper jaws in the first row of seats, and a short bearded man was waiting with his lips to it. The two gladiators stepped close to each other and the horn sound wailed out across the sand.

Before Gaius could tell whether the sound had stopped, the crowd was roaring and the two men were hammering blows at each other. In the first few seconds, strike after strike landed, some cutting, some sliding from steel made suddenly slippery with bright blood. Their area of the stands was torn between watching the fantastic display of savagery and getting in on the bet.

Tubruk frowned, his chin on his bunched fist. I cannot tell. They are too even. Both were bleeding and both were spattered with dust sticking to their sweat. Alexandros rammed his blue shield up under the other's guard, breaking his rhythm and balance.

His sword arm came up and over, looking for a high wound. The Italian scrambled back without dignity to escape the blow, and his shield fell in the dust as he did so. The crowd hooted and jeered, embarrassed by their man. The fight could be over in seconds, and if there was an obvious advantage to one of the fighters, the betting would cease. Not… yet…" Tubruk was a study in concentration.

On the sand, the area around the fighters was speckled darkly where their blood had dripped. Both paced to the left and then the right, then rushed in and cut and sliced, ducked and blocked, punched and tried to trip the other. Alexandros caught the Italian's sword on his shield. It was partially destroyed in the force of the blow, and the blade was trapped by the softer metal of the blue rectangle.

Like the other, it too was wrenched to the sand, and both men faced each other sideways, moving like crabs so that their arm-mail would protect them. The swords were nicked and blunted and the exertions in the raging Roman heat were beginning to tell on their strength. The betting slave looked for approval to the owner behind him.

Odds were whispered and the bets went on, with much of the crowd taking a slice. Tubruk said nothing. One of the gladiators lunged and recovered too fast for the other. The sword whipped back and into his side, causing a gout of blood to rush.

The riposte was viciously fast and sliced through a major leg muscle. A leg buckled and as the man went down, his opponent hacked into his neck, over and over, until he was thumping at a corpse. He lay in the mixing blood as it was sucked away by the dry sand, and his chest heaved with the pain and exertion.

Without the shields it wasn't clear, and a murmur went around the seats as the question was repeated over and over. Who had won? His master thought it was the Roman, but until the victor rose and removed his helmet, no one could be sure. Presumably he had a lot of money riding on the outcome as well. Certainly he looked as tense as anyone there. For maybe a minute, the surviving gladiator lay exhausted, his blood spilling.

The crowd grew louder, calling on him to rise and take off the helmet. Slowly, in obvious pain, he grasped his sword and pushed himself up on it. Standing, he swayed slightly and reached down to take a handful of sand. He rubbed the sand into his wound, watching as it fell away in soft red clumps.

His fingers too were bloody as he raised them to remove the helmet. Alexandros the Greek stood and smiled, his face pale with loss of blood. The crowd threw abuse at the swaying figure. Coins glittered in the sun as they were thrown, not to reward, but to hurt. With curses, money was exchanged all around the amphitheater, and the gladiator was ignored as he sank to his knees again and had to be helped out by slaves.

Tubruk watched him go, his face unreadable. Anyway, there was little schooling in his technique, just good speed and reflexes. While the sand was being raked clean, the crowd continued with their business, although Gaius and Marcus could see one or two spectators reenacting the gladiators' blows with shouts and mock cries of pain.

As they waited, the boys saw Julius tap Tubruk on his arm, bringing to his attention a pair of men approaching through the rows. Both seemed slightly out of place at the circus, with their togas of rough wool and their skins unadorned by metal jewelry. Julius stood with Tubruk, and the boys copied them. Gaius's father put out his hand and greeted the first to reach them, who bowed his head slightly on contact.

Please take a seat. This is my son and another boy in my care. I'm sure they can spend a few minutes buying food? Reluctantly, they moved off between the rows and joined a queue at a food stall. They watched as the four men bent their heads close and talked, their voices lost in the crowd. After a few minutes, as Marcus was buying oranges, Gaius saw the two newcomers thank his father and take his hand again.

Then each moved over to Tubruk, who put coins in their hands as they left. Marcus had bought an orange for each of them, and when they'd returned to their seats, he handed them out. I have a few bound to me in the city," Julius replied, skinning his orange neatly. I have never seen them before.

He smiled. They vote for candidates I support, or guard me in dangerous areas. They carry messages for me, or… a thousand other small things. In return, they get six denarii a day, each man. In this city, it is good to have men I can call on quickly, for any sudden task. Rich members of the Senate may have hundreds of clients. It is part of our system. Julius grunted. At first, he wasn't noticed, then people pointed and began to stand. Now you will be able to say you saw Renius fight when you have children of your own," Tubruk replied, smiling.

Everyone around them seemed lit up by the spectacle. A chant began and swelled: "Ren-i-us… Ren-i-us. The only sound in the world was his name. He raised his sword in salute. Even from a distance, it was clear that age had not yet taken a good twisting grip on him.

Belly's not flat, though. Look at that wide belt," Tubruk muttered almost to himself. Each wore a cloth around his loins that allowed free movement and carried a short gladius. No shields or armor could be seen. The Roman crowd fell quiet as the men formed a diamond with Renius at the center. There was a moment of stillness and then the animal enclosure opened.

Even before the cage was dragged out onto the sand, the short, hacking roars could be heard. The crowd whispered in anticipation. There were three lions pacing the cage as it was dragged out by sweating slaves. Through the bars they were obscene shapes: huge humped shoulders, heads and jaws tapering back to hindquarters almost as an afterthought.

They were created to crush out life with massive jaws. They swiped with their paws in unfocused rage as the cage was jarred and finally came to rest. Slaves lifted hammers aloft to knock out the wooden pegs that held the front section of the cage.

The crowd licked dry lips. The hammers fell, and the iron lattice dropped onto the sand, an echo clearly heard in the silence. One by one, the great cats moved out of the cage, revealing a speed and sureness of step that was frightening. The largest roared defiance at the group of men that faced it across the sand.

When they made no move, it began to pace up and down outside the cage, watching them all the while. Its companions roared and circled and it settled back onto its haunches. Without a signal, without a warning, it ran at the men, who shrank back visibly. This was death coming for them.

Renius could be heard barking out commands. The front of the diamond, three brave men, met the charge, swords ready. At the last moment, the lion took off in a rushing leap and smashed two of the slaves from their feet, striking with a paw on each chest. Neither moved, as their chests were shards and daggers of bone. The third man swung and hit the heavy mane, doing little damage.

The jaws closed on his arm in a snap like the strike of a snake. He screamed and carried on screaming as he staggered away, one hand holding the pumping red remains of the other wrist. A sword scraped along the lion's ribs and another cut a hamstring so that the rear quarters went suddenly limp. This served only to enrage the beast and it snapped at itself in red confusion. Renius growled a command and the others stepped back to allow him the kill. One caught the head of the wounded man who had wandered away.

A quick crack of the jaws and it was over. That lion settled down with the corpse, ignoring the other slaves as it bit into the soft abdomen and began to feed. It was quickly killed, speared on three blades in the mouth and chest. Renius met the charge of the last to his left. His protecting slave was tumbled by the strike and over him came the snapping rage that was the male cat.

Its paws were striking and great dark claws stood out like spear points, straining to pierce and tear. Renius balanced himself and struck into the chest. A wound opened with a rush of sticky dark blood, but the blade skittered off the breastbone and Renius was struck by a shoulder, only luck letting the jaws snap where he had been. He rolled and came up well, still with sword in hand. As the beast checked and turned back on him, he was ready and sent his blade into the armpit and the bursting heart.

The strength went out of it in the instant, as if the steel had lanced a boil. It lay and bled into the sand, still aware and panting, but become pitiful. A soft moan came from deep within the bloody chest as Renius approached, drawing a dagger from his belt. Reddish saliva dribbled onto the sand as the torn lungs strained to fill with air.

Renius spoke softly to the beast, but the words could not be heard in the stands. He lay a hand on the mane and patted it absently, as he would a favorite hound. Then he slipped the blade into the throat and it was over. The crowd seemed to draw breath for the first time in hours and then laughed at the release of tension. Four men were dead on the sand, but Renius, the old killer, still stood, looking exhausted.

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