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       The Arena (A gripping short story in the bestselling Eagles of Rome series), p.1
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           Ben Kane
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The Arena (A gripping short story in the bestselling Eagles of Rome series)



  About the Book

  About the Author

  Title Page

  The Arena (A short story)


  Hunting the Eagles


  About the Book

  An exclusive digital short from Ben Kane, ‘the rising star of historical fiction’ (Wilbur Smith).

  A day out with comrades, brutal gladiator fights, a bet with disastrous consequences. A Roman soldier’s much anticipated payday plays out in very different ways to those he expected.

  The German frontier, AD 12. Legionary Marcus Piso is set to enjoy a four monthly payday with his comrades. Wine, food and gladiatorial entertainment are on offer, and his purse is full.

  But thanks to a dishonest bet maker, events take on a very dangerous life of their own...

  ‘The Arena’ is a prequel to Ben Kane’s upcoming novel, Hunting the Eagles, the second in the new gripping three-part series, Eagles of Rome. It also includes a sample chapter from the new book.

  About the Author

  Last year I wrote ‘The Shrine’, a short story and prequel to Eagles at War, the first book in the Eagles of Rome trilogy. A fun thing to do, it seemed to go down well with my readers, so I decided to repeat the process and write another story. This one is set between the end of Eagles at War and the start of its sequel, Hunting the Eagles, which comes out in March 2016.

  I decided to make the central character of this story someone other than Tullus, the main star of the Eagles books. Piso, one of Tullus’ men, is a somewhat hapless soul. As with Degmar, the enigmatic German warrior, I’ve grown to like Piso as the series has continued, and I feel that his adventure at the arena outside the fort at Vetera might have happened to a real legionary. The remains of the arena are still visible near the town of Xanten, and are in use today as an outdoor theatre. It’s very atmospheric to walk to the ruins in the dark, through the fields, as I did in August 2014 with Anthony Riches, a fellow Roman author and friend.

  ‘The Arena’ came about partly because of that late-night stroll. I hope you enjoy the story as much as I enjoyed writing it.

  The Arena (a prelude to Hunting the Eagles)


  Ben Kane

  Outside the Roman Fortress of Vetera, on the German Frontier, Autumn AD 12

  Together with several of his comrades from the Fifth Legion, legionary Marcus Piso was rambling towards the settlement outside the massive camp in which he lived and served. It was early afternoon, and a watery sun could do little to dispel the chill in the air. Piso was drunk. Not pissed out of his head – that would come later – but in that fuzzy, pleasant state which made him feel goodwill towards all, and the world seem a better place. A tall man with spiky black hair, Piso had been in the army for four years – five come the following spring. Vitellius, his acerbic best friend, had been in far longer, and the rest had served for periods in between the two. Of the group, only Piso and Vitellius had been in the Eighteenth, one of the three legions wiped out by German tribesmen some years before.

  It was payday for the legionaries, a happy event that occurred every four months, and a cause of much revelry and drunken behaviour. The great majority of the camp’s garrison of two legions had been off duty since the morning’s parade and disbursement of monies. A couple of hundred unfortunates from each legion, selected by lot, remained in the camp as sentries, orderlies and messengers, but the rest, like Piso and his comrades, had been enjoying themselves from the moment they’d exited the fort’s massive gateway. Everyone’s destination was the vicus, the sprawling village that lay a short distance along the road north.

  Well aware of the day’s importance, local shopkeepers and inn proprietors had been hard at work since dawn. Temporary stalls – forbidden under normal circumstances, but ignored three times a year – had sprung up right outside the fort’s main gate, and lined the way towards the vicus. Wine of every kind was on offer, from burn-your-throat Gaulish and headache-inducing Iberian to the finest Campanian and silk-smooth Falernian. Rosy-cheeked women were selling fried sausages and fresh bread. Bakers competed with one another over whose pastries and cakes were the best. One enterprising individual even had a roasted piglet on a platter, complete with apple in mouth. ‘A copper for a thick slice,’ he roared. ‘And the crackling’s free!’

  The legionaries had been paid cohort by cohort. Being in the Seventh, Piso and his comrades had emerged after more than half the legion. They had grumbled with the rest as they’d shifted from foot to foot, their gaze fixed on the paymasters’ tables far in the distance. Their eagle-eyed centurion Tullus had been watching, however, so it had been under their breaths. Nothing to be done but wait, Vitellius had muttered. It was shit, Piso had replied, but at least the initial mad rush would be over once they’d had their coin.

  He was right. By the time the group had walked outside, the deluge of thirsty soldiers had washed over the first stalls and moved on to the more plentiful delights of the vicus, leaving shorter queues and quicker service. Piso and the rest had parked themselves by a stall run by a wall-eyed reprobate known to one and all as Verrucosus, thanks to the large wart on one of his florid cheeks. A man wouldn’t have known it from the clean tables and benches on display today, but Verrucosus ran one of the sleaziest dives in the vicus. His wine was drinkable, though, which was more than could be said for most of his competitors.

  The huge demand from six cohorts had seen Verrucosus’ stock almost drained – ‘Head to my inn – there’s plenty more where this came from!’ he’d cried as Piso and his companions threw back their third and final cups of wine. Promising they would call in, the still-thirsty legionaries had instead made straight for the stall next door. Not until they’d had perhaps half a dozen more did they even consider moving on.

  Progress had been slow since, thought Piso fuzzily. He had stopped to have some sausages and bread. One of their group had wandered beyond the tents to empty his bladder, and still hadn’t returned. Vitellius was the latest to stray. Casting about, Piso spied him by a baker’s stall. To Piso’s amusement, Vitellius was buying two pastries and a slab of almond cake, which he devoured on the spot.

  ‘How can you even want something sweet now, let alone that quantity of it?’ Piso demanded.

  Vitellius, his usual sour expression absent, shrugged. ‘It’s payday. I haven’t eaten anything sweet for a month and more.’

  ‘When a man’s drinking, it’s savoury food he needs,’ said Piso, shaking his head in distaste as the baker proffered some kind of sticky confectionery. ‘Come on, or we’ll never get there.’

  ‘Where’s “there”?’ asked Vitellius, wiping his mouth on his sleeve. Like Piso, he was dressed in a tunic, metalled belt with attached dagger, and studded sandals. ‘The Ox and Plough?’

  Piso, who hadn’t actually decided, gave bleary consideration to the idea. The Ox and Plough was one of the most popular establishments in the vicus. Run by Sirona, an attractive, middle-aged Gaulish woman, and her hulking sons, it was clean, and served good wine and food. Its main disadvantage was that Sirona was friendly with Tullus. Artio, the girl Tullus had rescued during the bloody ambush on their legion, also lived at the inn. ‘Not today,’ said Piso. ‘We’d have to be on our best behaviour.’

  There were rumbles of agreement from the others. ‘Tullus might appear,’ said one.

  ‘True enough. We’d best avoid it,’ said Vitellius. ‘It’s payday, for Jupiter’s sake. We don’t want to have to look over our shoulders the whole time.’

/>   ‘Where then?’ demanded Julius, a beefy man from Capua.

  ‘How about a whorehouse?’ suggested Vitellius, adding with a wink, ‘Before Bacchus has done his worst?’

  A couple of ‘Ayes’ met this proposal, but most of the group disagreed.

  ‘Speak for yourself, old man. I can get it up no matter how much I’ve drunk,’ said Piso. He leered at Vitellius, who was more than a decade older than he. ‘Benefits of youth and all that.’

  ‘Wine reduces every man’s ardour, you dog. Unless you’re Priapus’ son?’ retorted Vitellius, giving him a sharp elbow in the ribs.

  ‘Maybe I am! What’s more important is that I’m still thirsty.’ Truth be told, Piso was averse to most of the local whorehouses, which tended to be populated by raddled creatures carrying a variety of transmissible diseases. There was one premises he liked, the home of a beauty who went by the name of Diana, but its prices were eye-watering. Piso wasn’t sure if the fistful of coins weighing down his purse would buy Diana’s services for an hour. If they did, he’d be flat broke once the deed was done, and the next payday was a long way off. ‘There’ll be time for whores later,’ he declared. ‘It’s wine we need!’

  The others cheered. Scowling, Vitellius subsided.

  ‘To the vicus then,’ said Julius. He caught Piso eyeing the betmaker’s stall, where several legionaries were rolling dice. ‘You can waste your money later. No lagging!’

  Piso, who was fond of every kind of gambling, obeyed. If they didn’t get a move on, they would still be here at nightfall. Better to be in the vicus, where the variety of entertainment was greater. He had another reason too. The earlier he managed to get his comrades to the settlement, the more chance there’d be of persuading them later to go to the local arena, where gladiator contests were to be staged. A contact of Piso’s – one of the heavies who worked for the itinerant gladiator trainer supplying some of those fighting today – had given him the nod about a new, unknown murmillo. If Piso could refrain from pissing away too much of his pay, he might be able to multiply it into much more substantial funds. With this happy idea uppermost in his mind, he strode after the rest.

  A couple of hours later, Piso remained in good humour, but he was very much the worse for wear. He and his comrades had patronised several taverns, and consumed more wine than he could remember. There had been a meal of stewed beef at an open-fronted restaurant, and a visit to an armourer’s. In the latter, Vitellius had ordered a new belt, and Julius a dagger, both slapping down their deposits with the ponderousness of the very drunk. As was inevitable during such drink-fuelled celebrations, their group had splintered. Men had been distracted by cockfighting down alleyways or chance encounters with former comrades. Piso wondered if one of their number had sloped into a brothel beside the last inn they’d left, but he couldn’t be sure. Whatever the reason, only he, Vitellius and Julius had made it to the arena, which lay south of the fortress.

  The walk from the settlement, some mile and a half, had been welcome, the fresh air and break from drinking affording a chance to sober up a little. The quickest route to the arena, through the fort, had not been without risk – a minority of officers were disciplinarians, even on days such as this – yet the thought of having to walk around the camp, risking a drunken tumble into the ditch, had been worse. Adopting the soberest faces they could and taking an avenue parallel to the main one, Piso and his two comrades had made the journey without incident.

  Cheered by the shouts and cheers floating through the air, they pressed on towards the brick-built amphitheatre, which was positioned at the bottom of the gentle, south-facing hill below the great legionary fortress. There were fewer soldiers here than in the vicus, but the crowd milling around the shops and stalls still numbered in the hundreds, and Piso had no doubt there would be many more inside the theatre.

  ‘Let’s go inside and get seats,’ said Vitellius, slurring his words. ‘My legs are killing me.’

  ‘Never happy, are you?’ mocked Julius.

  Vitellius scowled as Piso and Julius laughed. ‘I don’t complain that much,’ he muttered.

  ‘I want to sit down too,’ Julius admitted. ‘The wine’s getting to me at last.’

  ‘At last?’ cried Vitellius. ‘This from the man who proposed marriage to a serving girl with fewer teeth than a grandmother!’

  ‘What can I say? I’m a lover of the female form,’ retorted Julius with a filthy grin.

  ‘You’d hop up on a she-ass if it let you. Asina!’ cried Piso, using the derogatory term.

  ‘I’ve got standards,’ protested Julius, wagging a finger. ‘Not many, but some – and they don’t include that kind of relationship. Now, are we going inside?’

  ‘What about placing bets?’ demanded Piso.

  Vitellius made a face. ‘I always lose. Better to save my money for wine and whores.’

  Julius was also shaking his head, no, and Piso sighed. ‘Go on in. Use gates one, two or three. I’ll find you.’

  ‘Let me guess – you’ve got a tip for one of the fights,’ said Vitellius.

  ‘That’s right,’ Piso replied over his shoulder.

  ‘You’ll lose all your money – again,’ warned Vitellius, but Piso wasn’t listening. He racked his brains for the name of the murmillo. Was it Avilius? Aulus? Aquila? He was cursed if he could remember. His good mood evaporating, Piso stamped from betmaker to betmaker, reading their boards, which detailed the fighters paired off against each other in the day’s contests. From what he could make out – this was confirmed by one of the betmakers – only two contests were left, both with a murmillo participating. Neither had a gladiator whose name began with ‘A’. Wary of arousing suspicion – if one of the sharp-eyed betmakers suspected he had inside knowledge, they would all refuse to take his money – Piso refrained from asking detailed questions about the fighters. With building frustration, he heard the next bout being announced. Soon the betmakers would stop taking wagers, and he would miss his chance – if the gladiator he’d been told about was even in this cursed contest. Piso swore under his breath. What to do?

  Fortuna must have been in a good mood, because his attention was then drawn to the loud conversation of three nearby legionaries. ‘What’s the point of putting money on a fighter no one’s heard of?’ demanded one.

  ‘You’d be better pissing it up against the wall,’ added the second.

  ‘I like the sound of his name,’ protested the last soldier. ‘And it’s my fucking money, last time I checked.’

  ‘Spend it on wine instead – a denarius will buy you enough for the rest of the night, and more,’ advised the first man.

  ‘Piss off,’ grumbled the prospective gambler. ‘My father had an old friend called Longus. He was like an uncle to me.’

  What was I thinking? Longus, thought Piso in delight. The murmillo’s name is Longus!

  The legionary eyed the closest betmaker, a lank-haired Gaul. ‘Ho, friend. What odds on Longus in the final contest?’

  ‘He’s to fight Donar, the local champion. Twenty to one against,’ said the Gaul.

  ‘Donar – the German who fights as one of your kind?’ asked the legionary.

  ‘He had to choose one of the classes. Better to be a Gaul than a Thracian or a provocator. Besides, presenting himself as a German in the arena here wouldn’t go down too well after what Arminius did,’ declared the Gaul. ‘How much are you wanting to wager?’

  ‘A denarius.’ Silver glinted in the legionary’s hand.

  ‘Bet accepted.’ The coins vanished into the depths of the Gaul’s capacious purse.

  Piso didn’t stay to hear any more. Longus was the murmillo he’d been told about. Acting casual, he managed to place two different-sized bets on Longus, securing similar odds, and without causing any of the betmakers to have misgivings. Praying now that his tip was accurate, he picked his way to the nearest entrance. As he jostled his way through the crowd, he bumped into Degmar, the wiry Marsi tribesman who served Tullus. Piso gave him a friendly n
od. It was Degmar who had saved him, Tullus and a dozen or so others after the terrible ambush three years before. Degmar, who was with a couple of other tribesmen, muttered a greeting in reply, and then they were swept apart.

  Vetera’s timber and stone amphitheatre was no grandiose structure like those in Rome and other cities, but it had numbers inscribed over the various entrances. Piso opted for the more central second, the best option for finding his friends. Inside the narrow staircase that led up towards the banked seating, the clamour from the spectators was deafening. The timber planking above Piso’s head shook with the impact of hundreds of hobnailed sandals, and the air rang with cheers, ribald comments and laughter. There wasn’t a fight going on, he thought. Too many men were laughing. As he emerged into the open air again, his gaze fell first – as it was supposed to – on the circle of sand that formed the amphitheatre’s centre. Half a dozen dwarfs in ornate, fantastical armour and carrying weapons were chasing a flock of clipped-wing cranes around the arena. Ridiculous and outlandish: Piso couldn’t help but chuckle.

  ‘You can do better than that!’ roared a soldier several rows of seats away. ‘Kill them!’

  ‘What’s crane taste like?’ shouted another.

  ‘Never mind crane, my friend here wants to eat dwarf!’ retorted a wit to Piso’s left.

  Spotting his friends several rows back, Piso worked his way towards them.

  ‘Happy?’ asked Vitellius.

  ‘Aye. I placed a couple of bets.’

  ‘Please tell me you didn’t throw away all of your pay,’ said Vitellius, rolling his eyes at Julius.

  ‘Not all, no.’ Piso’s fingers cupped his much lighter purse.

  ‘You’re not borrowing money from me for the next four months,’ warned Vitellius.

  ‘Or me,’ Julius was quick to add.

  ‘What kind of friends are you to doubt so fast?’ cried Piso. ‘If I win – when I win – you’re the ones who’ll be looking for loans, not me.’

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