Book I

Ely's blog
Nil's blog
Book One: synopsis
Book Two: synopsis

Chapter VII, where we learn that there is a lot to loot in Rome and that Drakon knows how to be grateful

Nil had very little difficulty finding Captain Glap and his ship in the port. His ship, Glapos, was a galley of a popular penteconter type with 50 oars, a single rowing deck, a rectangular sail on a single mast, and command decks at the stern and bow. Several centuries ago it was a popular type of warship, but now powerful triremes and maneuverable Liburnian galleys ruled the seas. That’s not to mention that all the major fleets were enforced with heavy quadriremes and quinqueremes. Glapos was still mighty enough to deal with a light pirate or trade vessel, whether defending itself against it or the other way around.

The captain was a stout, bearded Greek in a dark brown wool hooded cloak on top of a light brown tunic. The tunic was embroidered around the neck but otherwise was really simple. The only piece of jewelry on him was a gorgeous belt and a long knife with an engraved sheath and a hilt decorated with a gem. Although it did not look like just a piece of jewelry on this man.

After Bokha was mentioned, the captain immediately agreed to take the passenger for a “reasonable” price. From the price he named, Nil guessed that the “dear business associate” Bokha was hardly the best friend of Glap, so it took a couple of hours in the nearby tavern to negotiate a truly reasonable price and get the deal. There was still a few days until the departure, both men had nothing else to do, so negotiations slid effortlessly into the celebration of the deal, which required more wine and then, of course, girls. Captain Glap knew the right girls around with the right kind of wine, so the three days until sailing off passed quite smoothly for Nil and completely according to his original plans.

*  *  *

Nil was not susceptible to sea sickness so he felt well and had a good appetite, but day after day with nothing to do started to get to him at last. He tried to sleep a lot, but you can only sleep so much. The captain was kind enough to invite Nil every night to share a bottle of wine with him and his mate, a stocky Greek from Epirus, who was named after some ancient politician and now abbreviated to simply Phocles. But again, a couple of hours listening to the captain’s stories about himself and his ship are only two hours. For the rest of the time, Nil had to loaf on one of the two command decks, looking overboard at the infinite mass of water, sometimes blue, but most of the time gray because of the clouds hiding the sun. The storm season was not completely finished yet, and although they did not encounter any serious calamity, the weather was not fun.

On the tenth day, he was still looking overboard at the gray water that stretched to the horizon when he heard some noise on the rowing deck. The captain’s mate, Phocles, was whipping a slave with Captain Glap supervising. Nil got down to them, considering the spectacle and a talk to be a great improvement over fruitless staring at the empty sea. The rowing deck was filled with benches for oarsmen with a wide space between them, which is where the action took place.

“See?” the captain said. “I’ll never buy a Hyperborean slave again in my life. All they think about is how to run away. Can you imagine? He tried to escape in the middle of the sea! What a moron.”

“Is that what he is punished for?” Nil asked.

“Nah… I don’t like slaves who want to run away, but an idiot who runs to drown is a good warning for the rest. Look at what he did to the perfectly good oar!” Glap pointed to the end of an oar that looked like a family of beavers had some fun with it. “That’s what he is whipped for. Now I have to replace the oar! I wonder how he did it? He had nothing, no knife, no file, no nothing, except the iron chain that kept him in the place. Did he gnaw at it with his teeth?”

“It’s good that he was chained,” Nil said. “Seems like he could gnaw through ropes easily.”

“Sure,” Glap agreed. “Ropes don’t work anyway. They rot quickly. The chains are more expensive, but also more practical, ‘cause you don’t have to change them every month or two.”

“How did it happen that nobody noticed what he was doing?” Nil asked. “Looks like he spent a lot of time working on it.”

“He was bending over it all the time, the son of a bitch! We would not have noticed if not for these two.” Glap nodded in the direction of two galley-slaves who sat chained to the oars right behind the damaged one. “They are Christians, their faith tells them to be loyal to their master no matter who he is. So they gave up the stinker.”

“Christians?” Nil asked. “I’ve never heard of a Christian doing something like that. Who are they?”

“Who knows? Bah! And who cares?” Glap laughed and made the sign to his mate to stop whipping. “They say they were sold to slavery because they were Christians. But the former owner said they became slaves by doing some dirty work in Rome.”

“Christians doing dirty work,” Nil said. “How interesting. Never heard of that. Can I talk to them?”

“Sure,” Glap said and turned to the slaves in question. “Hey, dead meat! Honorable Nil wants to talk to you, scum. Answer him as you would answer me.”

Both of them were tall and strong men with dark curly hair, naked like the rest of galley-slaves on other benches. As Nil could easily see, they were not Jewish. Probably from Greece, the Greek colonies or southern Italy. Or Rome, thought Nil, Rome gathered so many different people that almost anybody could be from Rome, from a fair-haired German to a dark-skinned Nubian. They were in their late twenties with scars from a whip on their backs, but none from a sword or any other weapon. Wait, the straight narrow scar on the left arm of the older one looked like it was inflicted with a knife. Thieves, maybe, Nil thought, robbers – unlikely, and not usual Christians for sure. Nil worked enough with this sect to recognize the peaceful, somewhat sheepish expression they carried on their faces. These were not sheep, but wolves. No, not wolves, jackals more likely. These could burn Rome. Or they could know someone who will.

“So, you say your faith demands you to answer honestly, right?” Nil asked.

“Yes, master,” the older one said.

“Did you hear any of your Christian brethren talking about some disaster that’s going to strike Rome? I mean the actual city?”

“Yes, master,” the slave said. “Many people say that Rome is evil and going to be destroyed soon.”

“How soon?” Nil asked.

“People do not agree on that,” the slave said. “Some say in a few years, some say in a few months. You know, there is a prophesy that when Rome falls, good times will start. So some people are quite eager to see that, and some foretell it to happen as soon as this year.”

“And could some of them take a part in making it happen this soon?” Nil asked.

“Not many, master,” the slave said, “but some could. Are you asking about something in particular?”

“Yes, very particular,” Nil said. “Did you hear anything about anybody planning to burn or attack Rome in some other way this Autumn?”

“I could’ve,” the slave said after a pause. “Can I ask the kind master, will there be a reward in the event that I can recall that? Life on the galley is tough on my memory, it will be hard to recall–”

“I’ll give you a reward, you scum!” Glap, visibly interested in the matter, interrupted and made a sign to his mate. “You will answer all the questions as asked, you understand? Or you will be whipped until you answer!”

Together with a slave driver, the mate took the man and put him face down on the deck. He raised the whip but the man started to cry:

“I remember! I’ll tell, I’ll tell everything I know!”

“Who was the man you are talking about?” Nil asked.

“I don’t know his name. He was some Jew, they always prophesy the end of the world! Honestly, I don’t know!”

“Could you just have forgotten? If you talked to him, what did you call him?”

“I don’t remember, good master! Please, don’t punish me more. It was one of their odd names, I don’t remember,” the slave said.

“Could it be Benjamin?” Nil suggested, remembering the story told by Bokha.

“Yes, yes, good master! Benjamin! Exactly that! Thank you, thank you! He was Benjamin, now I remember for sure.”

“And when did they plan to do it?” Nil asked.

“I don’t know the date. They said it like it was a prophesy.”

The whip hissed in the air.

“Sometime in the autumn, good master,” the slave shouted. “Please don’t whip me, I’ll tell everything I know! I really will tell everything. Please, please, don’t whip me!”

“So you say you don’t know the day?” Nil asked with a grin on his face.

“I don’t, good master, I really don’t know. Please, don’t hurt me–”

The whip struck the back of the man, leaving a red stripe on it.

“A-a-ah! Please, don’t hurt me! Please, good master…”

“Don’t cover your friends, scum,” Glap said and turned to Nil. “He knows, he definitely knows, I can see it. Ask him harder, he will tell.”

“You heard your master,” Nil said. “Tell me, when will they try to burn Rome? I know they will. You cannot hide it from me. When?”

“I don’t know, good master. Maybe September? October?”

Nil made a sign to Phocles and he raised the hand with a whip.

“September, good master, definitely September,” the slave said.

“Somewhere around September Ides?” Nil asked cautiously.

“Yes, good master, yes, now I recall, around September Ides. Just like you said. You see, I am telling, I am telling everything!”

“What day? Which day of September Ides?” Nil asked.

“I don’t remember, good master. Fifth? Ninth? Third?”

“You said ‘third’?” Nil asked with a smile.

“Yes, good master, the third! Now I remember exactly, the third!”

Nil turned to Glap and waived a hand.

“Thank you, Captain. I think I’ve got everything I need to know from him.”

While Phocles and the slave driver put the man back to the oar, Nil and the captain got to the upper deck.

“Glap, thanks for your help. By the way, keep what you’ve heard today quiet,” Nil said. “You know, imperial affairs…”

“Sure thing, you can trust me on that,” the captain said. “With such matters, the shorter tongue is good for the longer life. Sounds like trouble, eh?”

“Not if I can help it,” Nil said.

*  *  *

Later in the night, two Greek slaves were whispering among themselves.

“Phaon,” the younger slave said.

“What?” the older one asked

“Why did you say we are Christians?” the younger one asked.

“Would you prefer to tell the cap the real story?”

“Does it matter?”

“No, it does not,” the older one said, “if we can escape and keep ourselves free.”

“You got into trouble today because of it.”

“Some crying and just one whip, nah, Phaos. Not much trouble,” Phaon said. “But look what we’ve got for that.”


“Did you hear what that man said?” Phaon asked. “On the third day of September Ides there is going to be a large fire in Rome. Really large, if this guy is right.”

“So, what? I don’t care, let the Romans think about Rome,” Phaos said.

“Little brother, you are missing the whole point,” Phaon said with a chuckle. “Fire means disorder, confusion, mess. A large fire means a lot of disorder and mess. Including disorder in official records. After the fire happens, you and me will go around covered with soot and crying that our house and papers are gone. See? We can be free again.”

“Only if you can bribe an official, old brother,” Phaos said with a skeptical smile.

“Sure,” Phaon agreed. “And who do you think will do some looting while the city is on fire? That’s Rome, brother – there is a lot to steal there.”

“I still see a little problem with your plan,” Phaos said and clanked the chain that linked him to the oar.

“I saved the file that the barbarian used,” Phaon said and nodded ahead to where the Hyperborean slave was sleeping, leaned against the oar. “It’s made of very good iron and I think it can cut through the chains as well as it did with the wood. It’s pretty cheap iron on the chains, it’s narrow and soft. So in the nearest port we’ll be gone.”

*  *  *

About the same time on the main deck, the captain and his mate had a talk.

“Phocles, about the crap you’ve heard today. Keep it quiet,” the captain said.

“Sure thing,” the mate agreed. “You know, I am not a blab. But I think one man ought to know about it.”


“Drakon,” Phocles said. “He’d love to know when he could burn Bokha’s store in Rome without much of a risk. And he knows how to be grateful.”

“Not much love for our friend Bokha, huh?” Glap chuckled, thought for a moment, and then said, “You are right, let’s let him know. But other than that, not to a single soul, Phocles, you understand?”

“Sure thing, Glap.”

*  *  *

Three days later, when they almost reached their destination and the shore was already visible, a real storm came. It was still too far to reach a port or even find some bay to hide from the waves. The crew took the sail off and removed the mast, but despite all the hard work of oarsmen, the ship, driven by wind and waves, was moving slowly toward the shore.

On the positive side, the shore consisted mostly of sandy beaches, only rarely interrupted with rocky capes. When it became obvious that they could not win, Captain Glap made a decision to beach the ship on a wide sandy place in the hope that it would not result in much damage and may be set afloat again after the storm was gone.

Oarsmen turned the ship with the stern to the shore and thrust it backward. The ship ran aground on the sandy shoal a hundred steps from the dry place. Its sharp narrow bow was facing the waves coming on it from the open sea.

No one got injured, except three slaves at the oars who were washed away at the very last moment when the ship hit the bank. It looked like the chains broke, unable to resist the energy of waves. Nobody found it strange that all three were sitting next to each other. After all, when a wave hits, it does it most strongly in just one place. Nobody looked carefully at how the chains were broken. Nobody wondered what happened to these slaves, everybody thought they were gone and dead. Incidentally, these were the two Greek brothers and the Hyperborean.