Promises, by Paul L. Mathews

 

Felix licked his lips and rubbed his earlobe as the stranger unwrapped the gladius. Its blade gleamed even in the darkness of the alleyway, as did the bull’s head motif on the pommel.

“Do you like it?” asked Felix. His eyes widened as he tried to compensate for the gloom of the alleyway, but for nought. All he could see of the stranger—silhouetted by what light crept into the alley—was a bald head, a beard, and a cloak.

The stranger took hold of the pommel and lifted the gladius from the oilcloth. Felix’s bodyguard—the Nubian Lazaros—stepped between Felix and the stranger, raising his own blade.

“Easy now, Lazaros,” said the stranger. “I’m not looking for trouble.”

Lazaros and Felix exchanged glances, the Nubian’s brow furrowed. Felix read his expression; does this man know us?

“And you’re sure this gladius belonged to Cato, the son of Vitus?” asked the stranger.

“It was brought to us by Manlius of the Palatine,” said Felix. “He took it from Cato’s body after he slew him during the battle at Apollo’s temple.”

“Enough questions,” said Lazaros. “Do you want the sword or not?”

Felix winced; Lazaros’ temper would get them into trouble one day.

The stranger stepped forward, re-wrapping the sword with the oilcloth. Lazaros grunted and—holding his own sword at arm’s length—placed the tip of his blade on the stranger’s chest.

“No further,” murmured the Nubian.

Felix stepped back. Throat tight and sphincter twitching, he fought to steady his breathing. How he hated all this macho nonsense; why couldn’t people just pay up and go home?

“I only wish to pay the man.” The stranger—now holding the swaddled gladius by its pommel—reached into some hidden pocket in his cloak with this other hand. He produced a handful of denarii and said, “No need for alarm, my friend.

The stranger held out his hand, denarii bulging from between his fingers. Felix licked his lips; that was a lot of money…

“Thank you,” said Felix as he stepped forward and shoved Lazaros to one side. “It is good to meet a man of his word.” He held out his hands, palms open and greedy. “Now, we’d agreed upon—”

The coins clattered on the cobbles as the stranger dropped them, snatching Felix by the wrist. In an instant he’d pulled Felix toward him with such strength and speed Felix lost his footing and fell to his knees before the stranger, crying out in pain as his knees crunched on the cobbles and discarded coins.

“Back!” the stranger shouted at Lazaros. He retained his grip on Felix’s wrist with one hand and held the Nubian at bay with Vitus’ gladius with the other. He didn’t seem to care that the sword was still wrapped in an oilcloth. “Or I break his wrist!”

“Do as he says!” Felix cried out as, as though to underline his threat, the stranger twisted his wrist. “Do it!”

Lazaros snarled, white teeth gleaming in the murk, but he stepped back nonetheless.

Perhaps satisfied the Nubian was pacified, the stranger knelt beside Felix, and the fence whimpered. What fate did this stranger have in store for him? he wondered, imagination and pulse racing. A blade to the throat? A broken neck?

Felix winced, but, now he was closer, he could see more of the stranger. Good quality cloak. Head newly shaven and oiled. An earring. Neatly trimmed beard. Felix frowned. Where had he seen this man before…?

“Now, tell me again,” said the stranger. “This is Vitus’ sword?”

“Yes!” said Felix, voice rising an octave as the stranger twisted his wrist a little further. “Yes!”

“And you were sold it by Manlius?”

“Yes!”

“So you had nothing to do with Cato's death?”

“No!” Felix shrieked, tears running down his face. “Nothing!”

A pause, and Felix sphincter finally capitulated and the contents of his bowel plopped onto the coins beneath him. A laconic smile from the stranger before he let go of Felix’s wrist and stood, turning on his heel.

“A pleasure doing business with you,” he said as he strode away. “Enjoy your money.”

#

The Golden Vine Rod had stood empty since Cato's death. Upon learning of the youth's fate, Cato's customers had shrugged, muttered what a pity it was such as Cato should die so young, and then gone to eat elsewhere. Such is, thought Celsus as he walked slowly about the caupona, the way of all loyal customers.

“Nice place,” said Celsus, eye narrow as he studied the various necklaces, bangles and rings nailed to one of the caupona's walls. “But what’s with all this nonsense?”

“Mementos,” said Jacobus.

“Cato kept little trophies from his various victims,” said Jacobus’ twin, Jacomus.

“And now Cato’s dead, they‘re our trophies,” said Jacobus.

“No,” said Jacomus, “They’re Mestrius’ mementos,” he said, referring to their dominus. “We’re just looking after them.”

The twins laughed in unison. Celsus turned to watch as they moved about the caupona. Fay and slight, the golden-haired youths moved gracefully. They seemed to glide, bare feet hardly touching the floor. Jacomus—or was it Jacobus? thought Celsus with a frown—swept a finger across the caupona’s counter. He examined the resulting dust and grease on his finger and exchanged a glance with his twin. A moment of silent communication and the pair laughed in perfect synchronisation before further inspecting the caupona’s other surfaces and furniture.

Celsus sat down on one of the benches, placing his dagger in front of him. The bench groaned under his bulk. He nodded in approval as he looked about the place. Yes, it was dusty. Yes, it was modest, but—with Cato dead—it was on the market. And it would make an excellent addition to Mestrius’ portfo—

“You’re sat in my place.”

He turned to the caupona’s doorway, startled. There stood a stranger. Celsus’ eye twitched as he studied this new comer. Medium height. Slim. Broad. Leather armour under a woollen cloak. Grey beard contrasting with a shaven head. Earring through one lobe…

His gaze drifted to the stranger's belt.

…No weapons.

Celsus glanced over his shoulder at the twins. Confusion etched on their frowning faces, they looked back at Celsus and shrugged in unison. Celsus knew exactly what they were thinking…

…Who picks a fight in the Aventine without carrying a weapon?

“You’re mistaken, friend,” said Jacomus.

“The Golden Vine Rod now belongs to Mestrius…” said Jacobus.

“All honour and fortune to him,” said Jacomus.

“…And we are but here to serve notice to the Vine Rod’s former owner.”

“And how convenient Cato is dead,” said the stranger.

“It certainly saves us the trouble,” said Celsus with a gentle smile.

“The trouble, it seems, is mine,” said the stranger. Now he moved to appraise Cato’s wall of mementos. “For I, too, have designs on this caupona.”

“Designs?” asked Celsus. Still seated, he slipped his hand onto the bench and took hold of his dagger. “What designs?”

“Are you retarded?” asked the stranger. He didn’t even bother looking at Celsus. Instead, he began to take the various necklaces and rings from the wall, holding them in one hand. “What do you think I mean?”

“I think you’re looking for a fight.” Celsus took hold of his dagger. He heard the twins draw their weapons, each bearing twin short swords. “And I think you have a death wish.”

The stranger paused, smiling, and yet still he faced the wall. “Hardly,” he said. “I didn’t survive so long in the arena just to throw my life away now.”

The arena? Celsus glanced over his shoulder at the twins. They looked at him and shrugged in unison. The arena? Celsus thought as he looked back and saw the stranger placing the necklaces et al. on the caupona’s counter. Celsus’ pulse quickened, and his grip tightened on his dagger. The arena? Maybe this stranger was more dangerous than he looked…

“Don’t worry,” said the stranger as he turned to face them, reaching into his cloak. “I don’t intend to steal from you. I mean to pay...” He pulled an oilcloth bundle from within the depths of his cloak. “…All you have to do is choose your preferred means of payment.”

“What?” asked Celsus, He ground his teeth. The stranger was beginning to annoy.

“Choose.” The stranger unwrapped the bundle, revealing a beautiful and gleaming gladius. “Go in peace and retain your dignity.” He placed the gladius on the wall, its blade and pommel resting on two of the nails which had previously been used to display Cato’s mementos. He stepped back and admired his work. “Or fight and leave in shame.”

Celsus rolled his eyes, bored. “Kill this idiot.”

The twins moved immediately upon Celsus’ instruction, twin short swords swinging in intricate, swirling pattern. The stranger appeared to sigh, shoulders sagging slightly as the twins bore down on him.

Celsus didn’t even bother to watch, instead using his dagger to clean dirt from under his fingernails. Squinting as he focused on his nails, he heard the swish of blades slicing air. A thud of a body hitting the floor. Another swish of a blades. A sound of bone crunching on bone and a cry from one of the twins. Another thud. Fists hitting a face, torso and face again. More fists, more face. Steel sinking into wood…

Celsus frowned, pausing with the blade of his knife scrapping dirt from underneath his thumbnail. Something was wrong...

…A wet, viscous sound like a melon being split asunder, followed by the thud of another body hitting the floor.

…This should have been over by now.

He looked up, only to see the twins unconscious and prostrate on the floor, one bleeding heavily from a split in his forehead, blonde hair stained red. The stranger—unmarked—crossed the distance between himself and Celsus in one stride. Celsus’ heart skipped a beat and he rose, drawing the dagger back to stab at the oncoming foe, but too late. The stranger seized Celsus by his hair before ramming his face into the table. A flash of pain and crunch of bone and Celsus reeled, staggering back and away from the stranger, coughing as blood filled his throat and mouth. He blinked, trying to focus, but too late. He had the briefest impression of the stranger vaulting the table to stand before him…

…And then darkness,

#

He smiled. He’d put out the trash and told them to stay away from his new caupona. Now he stood, hands on his hips, as he admired his new trophy wall. The twins’ four swords, Celsus’ dagger and Cato’s gladius all rested on nails on the wall, testimony to his day’s work. He closed his eyes and, nostrils flaring, took in the caupona’s unique scent. Even now the smell of the cooked meats, chickpeas and olive oil lingered in the air.

So this, he thought, is what freedom smells like.

Yes, they would come, Celsus and all the other scum like him. But let them. He’d beaten better on a daily basis in the arena and would beat these grubby little gangers now. He would take their weapons, and they would learn; the Iberian was done killing, and there would be no more killing in his neighbourhood…

…Just as he’d once promised Vitus.

#

One of our newest Incola, the Iberian can be added to your Gangs of Rome collection here.