A couple of posts ago, I told you that I would be posting short excerpts of Killing the Hydra prior to the official launch.
And so, as promised, here is the first one. I've tried to pick something that won't have any spoilers in it.
In this scene, Lucius is back in North Africa. He is travelling incognito (for a very good reason!) to the legionary base at Lambaesis in Numidia, where his men are stationed.
On the way, he must stop for a night in the town of Thugga. This was a massive Roman settlement in what is now central Tunisia. It contains some of the most impressive and intact remains that I have ever seen.
When Lucius arrives in Thugga, he finds himself in trouble and it is then that he enlists the help of a very unlikely person.
This is from Chapter V - 'On the Road to Cirta':
A day later, after another damp night out of doors, Lucius passed the milestone indicating that Thugga was a mere eight miles away. The sun was somewhat blotted out due to the low clouds that encircled the surrounding hills as he drew near to the city. It seemed odd that such a large and prosperous settlement should be found in so remote and quiet a region. The road was extremely well-kept and was flanked with many impressive shrines and tombs the closer he came to the settlement. Finally, the city came into full view, its vast array of bright buildings cutting through the cloud, foremost among them the tall peak of the Capitol with the image of an eagle soaring above the streets.
Thugga overlooked vast olive groves that blanketed the rolling land. It was a prosperous city with many new buildings in evidence; it even had an arch recently dedicated to the Emperor through which Lucius passed as he entered the city on the Carthage road. As he looked up, he was struck by how the buildings radiated from the Capitol at the top to cover the sloping hill like the surrounding olive groves. To the south of the city limits stood a lonely Punic mausoleum jutting out among the trees.
The streets were densely packed and Lucius could hear noise from the theatre at the top of the hill and the hippodrome to the north. Beautiful temples stood all around the walls providing the citizens with pockets of peaceful silence away from the forum and places of entertainment. Just inside the eastern gate, along the main road, Lucius spotted a large inn with stables in the rear and decided it might be a good place to spend the night as he could not take the wagon further into the city.
The inn was at the corner of two streets. Lucius left the wagon with the slave out front to whom he gave a denarius to watch his belongings. The man nodded, planted himself next to the horses and held the reigns tightly in his hand while Lucius went inside. He was welcomed by a man of Punic origin who was gaudily dressed in purple, gold and orange robes. His bangled arms clanged as he raised them in greeting to the traveller.
“Come, come inside, oh weary traveller!” he said in what must have been a completely new version of Latin. Lucius struggled to understand him. “You need a room for the night, two nights, a week?” His groomed eyebrows pointed upward curiously as he looked for a money pouch at Lucius’ waist.
“Just one night.”
“Very well, very well. I have a room for you. Only twenty denarii!”
“Twenty!” He must be putting me on? Lucius wondered.
“Thugga is a prosperous city, citizen, and very expensive during the games.”
“Very well.” Lucius laughed to himself as the man continued looking for a money pouch. “I’ll take it as long as you stable my horses and wagon for the night. I set out early in the morning.”
“Very good! Excellent!” The man clapped his hands and rubbed them together briskly. “You do have coins, do you not?”
“Something better, my good man!” Lucius reached into his satchel.
“Gold!” The proprietor was practically jumping up and down like a child awaiting honeyed sweets. “You have gold! Oh, may the Gods bless you!”
“No. Not gold. Here.” Lucius produced the Imperial pass and handed it to the man whose giddiness soon vanished as if he had lead weights tied to his feet. He frowned and huffed. Evidently, he had seen this sort of thing before and was clearly disappointed.
“Not another!” he said to himself. “I knew I should have opened an inn in the area closer to the forum! Everybody has coin there. But here? No! Travellers passing through with Imperial passes!”
“I can go elsewhere if you do not wish to honour the Emperor’s seal,” Lucius said sternly. The man lightened up slightly.
“No! It is fine. I honour the Emperor’s seal.” He knew that if he did not, he would have trouble from the local magistrate. “Come with me to your room.” Lucius followed him up some stairs to a small room with a single bed and a small table. Not the most luxurious room in the house, but good enough for one night. “Here it is. The stables are around back. I keep them guarded all the time, so do not worry about any belongings,” he said curtly.
“Good. Are there baths in the town?” Lucius asked.
“Of course there are baths in the town!” The man looked greatly insulted. “Thugga has three baths! There is the large one down the road you came in on, there is the one at the brothel up the street in front of this inn if that is to your taste…” He winked at Lucius who ignored him. The man cleared his throat and stepped back. “Or, if you prefer, the family of the Licinii has recently constructed a beautiful bath complex toward the centre of town. Very nice, that one!”
“That sounds good.” Lucius then followed the man downstairs and took his wagon to the rear of the building where he stabled the horses and hid the wagon as best he could, covering the trunks with some loose planks of wood so that they were not evident in the dark. They had locks on them, but one never knew who was about at night.
With a change of clothes in his satchel, Lucius left the inn and walked up the street. At the second intersection, he found himself in the shadow of a giant marble phallus that protruded, very erect, from the front of a small complex. The brothel.
“By Bacchus!” Lucius laughed. He could hear giggling from within, mingled with moans and pitched screams of some form or another. A half-dressed man came running out into the street smiling and entered the next door where the public latrines were located. Soon after, he emerged quite relieved and re-entered the brothel beneath the giant phallus. Lucius moved on to the new baths. Just as he turned, a woman appeared in the doorway of the brothel.
“Hellooo!” she said in a feigned sultry voice. “Looking for company, Roman?” She was of an average height, dark and slender. She would have been beautiful if not for the thick layer of stibium around her eyes, the scent of previous customers and a musky oil that emanated from her body.
“No, erm, thank you,” he said politely as he turned to go.
“Don’t leave so soon!” She skipped after him, her silver anklets and bracelets jingling as she went. “I’m only being friendly!”
“Sorry, but I really must go now. Thanks for the offer.” Lucius continued walking, embarrassed by the unwanted stares he received by passing locals. The girl was unperturbed.
“My name’s Dido,” she said.
“Of course it is.”
“Ha! You’re playing with me, Roman! What’s your real name?” she persisted.
“Titus.” Lucius did not want to give his real name to her. He walked faster to escape her strong smell but she was fleet-footed.
“Oooo. I like that name. Titus, how would you like to play with me? Half price for the entire night. You look like you could do that.” She poked Lucius in the side and he stopped.
“Look here, Dido! I’ve been travelling for two days, I’m tired and there’s only ever one woman on my mind or in my bed: my wife! So, if you don’t mind, I’d like to be alone, understand?” He continued walking and she followed him up the wide marble avenue that curved around the baths up the hill.
“Oh ho! You’re a feisty one! I like that. But since when is being married something to prevent a man travelling by himself from having a little fun?”
“Since me, woman! All right?” He stopped outside the doors to the baths. Dido lowered her head a little, either in disappointment or embarrassment. “Look,” said Lucius, feeling badly he had raised his voice to her so loudly. “I’m tired, filthy and otherwise extremely happy with my situation. Thank you again for your offer, but I’m sure that there are plenty of other men who would welcome a night immersed in your pleasures. Just not me.” Dido raised her head and smiled understandingly, her eyes glistening behind the dark stibium.
“Forgive me, Titus. It’s rare that a man like you passes through Thugga. I respect your situation and though my offer still stands, I understand your reasoning. Good evening to you and may Baal protect you on your journey.” With that, she turned and went back down the white street, her bare feet smacking on the marble to the tune of her jingling jewellery.
|The Capitol of Thugga|
|An average street in Thugga|
|The 'House of the Cyclops'|
(draw your own conclusions about the name)