It is AD 25. Pirate ships strike terror in the hearts of those who brave the seas of the Roman Empire.
When Telemachus joins the crew of the merchant ship Selene, he’s glad to escape the rough streets of Piraeus. He knows little of the dangers of life at sea. Even past hardship has not prepared him for the terror on board when a pirate ship appears.
The fight is bloody, but the result is never in doubt. Then the victorious pirate chief, Bulla, offers the beaten men a cruel choice: join us, or die. After surviving a brutal initiation rite, Telemachus impresses his new captain with his resourcefulness and strength, and swiftly rises through the pirate ranks. But dangerous rivals talk of mutiny and murder. While Prefect Canis, notorious commander of the imperial fleet, is relentless in his pursuit of the pirate brotherhood.
Could Telemachus be the man to lead the pirates and challenge Rome?
Read the first chapter of Pirata below!
Piraeus, early AD 25
Asharp gust of wind and rain blasted the Greek captain as he staggered down the dimly lit street. It was a foul evening in early spring, and the streets of the port were deserted. Clemestes hurried along, occasionally glancing over his shoulder at the three heavy-set figures a short distance behind him. The seasoned captain of the merchantman Selene had recently returned from a successful voyage to Salamis, landing a cargo of garum and salted fish. Although the journey had provided him with only a small profit, barely enough to cover the expenses of his crew and ship, Clemestes had fared better than most of his fellow seamen. Times were hard for the merchant captains of Piraeus, after two years of poor harvests and pirate attacks that had caused a drop in trade passing through the port. Several had been forced out of business, and many of those who survived were forced to borrow substantial sums from the merchants to cover their losses. Clemestes had decided to celebrate a rare successful trip with a skinful of mulsum at one of the local taverns, and as dusk settled over the port and the light faded, he’d left the Jolly Sailor to return to the warmth of the small cabin aboard his ship. A short while later, he had spotted the men following him.
The rain continued to fall steadily, pattering against the shingle roof tiles of the surrounding buildings as Clemestes passed through the gloomy back streets of the warehouse district. At this late hour the storehouses were usually busy with teams of stevedores unloading the goods from newly arrived merchantmen, much of it bound for Athens, but the streets in this part of the town were eerily quiet now. The threat of attack from the bands of pirates who were known to prey on the main trade routes had unnerved the local merchants and shipowners, with many of them reluctant to risk transporting their goods across the Empire, and Piraeus had suffered badly as a result, plunged into a period of economic turmoil from which she showed no signs of recovering.
Clemestes glanced over his shoulder again as he continued down the street. The three men were keeping pace with him, brown tunics hanging from their burly physiques. They had remained a steady distance behind him, following his every move and never quite disappearing from view. At first he’d dismissed the notion that they were following him. But then he had caught a glimpse of their faces in the glow of an open doorway, and recognised them from the crowd at the tavern. They had been sitting at a trestle table in a dark- ened corner, drinking and watching the other patrons with interest. An overly keen interest, Clemestes now reflected anxiously. There was no doubt in his mind. These men were footpads. They had seen him leaving the tavern and intended to rob him.
He swallowed hard and faced forward, pulling his cloak tight across his front as he increased his pace, cursing himself for not noticing the footpads earlier. If he had spotted his pursuers as soon as he’d left the tavern, he could have easily sought safety in another of the many cheap watering holes and wine shops that did a brisk trade along the main agora. Instead, he had been too busy congratulating himself on the success of his voyage, and had only become aware of the footpads once he had veered off the main thoroughfare, making his way through the shady winding alleys of the warehouse district. Now there was nowhere for him to hide, nowhere to seek shelter and wait for the footpads to abandon their chase. No one to save him once they sprang their attack.
He shivered beneath his cloak and looked behind him once more. The footpads were now twenty paces back, moving swiftly in spite of their bulky frames. Clemestes himself walked with a pronounced limp that slowed him down, the result of an old injury he’d sustained during his years as a ship’s mate, and with a rising sense of dread, he realised that his pursuers would soon catch up with him.
Shaking off the drunken fog behind his eyes, he decided that his best hope was to cut through the maze of storehouses and try to lose the footpads before returning to Selene. He had grown up in Piraeus, running errands for the warehouse managers as a young boy before joining the crew of a small fishing vessel, and he knew the streets in this quarter of the port better than most. Better than the men following him, he hoped. With luck, he might be able to shake them off, and then he would be free to make his way back to the safety of his vessel and crew.
He darted down a side street and made a series of quick turns, heading in the direction of the large commercial emporium situated next to the quayside. A fetid stench of human waste hung in the air as he hurried onward. His heart was beating faster now, and he prayed to the gods to protect him from his pursuers. He passed a smaller abandoned warehouse, another painful reminder of how Piraeus had fallen on hard times due to the depredations of the pirates. Although there had always been a few crews terrorising the sea lanes, picking off unsuspecting merchantmen from time to time, the situation had worsened in recent years as the pirates, emboldened by their initial successes, had undertaken frequent and more daring raids across the eastern Mediterranean and beyond. The situation was now so bad that Clemestes had already decided to retire from the business as soon as he’d paid off his debts. In a year or two he planned to sell off Selene and settle down on one of the islands in the Aegean. He’d marry a local girl, buy a plot of land, tend his crop, and spend his evenings drinking in one of the local inns, swapping sailing tales with the other old sea dogs. If he managed to live that long.
His heart fell as he saw that two of his pursuers were still behind him and drawing closer. He turned and limped on. In the distance he heard peals of laughter, and knew he was close to the quayside. Once he reached the packed quay, the men following would be forced to give up the chase. Although the trade at Piraeus had suffered in recent times, the port was still bustling with merchants and sailors and wine shop trade even at such a late hour. Surely the footpads wouldn’t dare spring an attack in such a busy part of town.
He ducked into an alley to his right, a cramped space between two dilapidated buildings, twice almost slipping as he tried to avoid the trickle of piss and shit that flowed through the streets in this part of town. In the gloom he could see only a few paces in front of him and he had to watch his step carefully as he picked his way through the heaps of stinking rubbish that had been dumped on either side of the alley. A short distance ahead an oil lamp hung from an iron bracket to illuminate the entrance to one of the warehouses adjacent to the emporium, and he felt his heart lift as he realised he had almost reached the quayside. As he pushed on, he felt his foot brush against something hard and bony. He blundered forward, only recovering his balance at the last instant.
‘Oi! Watch it!’ a voice hissed.
Clemestes stopped and glanced back. In the shadows he could just make out a scrawny youth, a threadbare blanket wrapped around his huddled frame. In the darkness of the alley he had failed to spot the homeless figure and had stumbled over his outstretched legs. The youth looked up at him and scowled.
The urgent sound of footsteps pounding towards him snapped the captain’s attention from the wretched boy and he staggered on. He was less than ten paces from the corner, and for a brief moment, he thought he might escape his pursuers. Then he glimpsed a burly shape sweeping into view at the end of the alleyway. The figure stepped forward from the shadows, and Clemestes stopped in his tracks as he recognised the man’s shaven head and heavily scarred face. The third footpad, he realised with an icy knot of fear. He must have sprinted ahead of his comrades down one of the streets running parallel to the alley, cutting off the only escape route to the quayside while his two companions kept a steady distance behind their target. Clemestes felt his heart sink. The robbers’ plan had worked perfectly. He was trapped.
He spun around as the two other footpads appeared at the entrance to the alley and moved quickly towards him. He glanced frantically about, searching for another way out. But there was none. He felt a cold tingle of terror run down his spine as the three assailants closed on him. He opened his mouth to cry for help, but one of the robbers sprang forward in a flash and slammed a fist into his stomach. The sea captain gasped as the air was driven from his lungs and he doubled over, clutching his midriff. The same footpad swung a boot at him and sent him crashing to the ground. A jarring pain erupted inside his skull as the other two men set upon him, delivering a flurry of punches and kicks to his body. He raised his arms in a futile bid to shield his head, but the blows continued to rain down upon him. A boot swung against his exposed flank. Something cracked, and he felt a sharp pain flare inside his chest.
‘Get his purse!’
The blows ceased as two of the robbers stepped back. Clemestes reached a hand to his bruised chest, groaning. He tasted blood in his mouth as one of the men, who boasted a broken nose and several gaps in his teeth, dropped to one knee beside him. The footpad reached under his cloak and grabbed the money purse tied to his belt, snatching it free and tossing it to his companion, a squat, bearded man with small dark eyes. The second man peered inside the purse and frowned. Then he looked down at Clemestes, his eyes narrowing to mere slits.
‘Where’s the rest of it?’ he demanded.
Clemestes winced. ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ ‘Bollocks! I wasn’t born yesterday, old man. We heard about the
cargo you landed. A mate of ours keeps an eye on all the goods coming in. He reckons you got a decent price for yours. More than the measly few coins in here anyway.’ The bearded robber tapped the half-empty purse, then gestured to his comrade with the missing teeth. ‘Now tell me where you’re keeping the rest of the loot, or Cadmus here will cut your fucking balls off.’
A menacing grin crept on to Cadmus’s scarred lips as he drew his dagger. Clemestes swung his gaze back to the bearded robber and shook his head quickly.
‘Please! That’s all I have!’
‘Bastard’s lying,’ Cadmus snarled. ‘I can tell.’
‘It’s the truth, I swear,’ Clemestes protested.
The thief stared down at him for a moment, then turned to the man wielding the blade.
‘Cut an eye out, Cadmus. That’ll loosen his tongue.’
Cadmus moved towards the captain, the dagger tip glinting in the dim light. Clemestes lay helpless on the rain-slicked flagstones, gripped by the realisation that he was going to die in this squalid alley, and not at the hands of some terrible sea monster or violent storm as he had often feared. His muscles tensed with fear as the blade drew close to his face, and he offered up a silent prayer to the gods.
As he did so, he caught a glimpse of movement behind the footpad. A lithe dark shadow lunged forward from one of the doorways further down the alley and charged at the bearded man, slamming shoulder- first into his back. The robber let out an explosive grunt as he fell forward, crashing into a pile of rubble and rotting wood to one side of the alley.
At the sound of his comrade’s pained cry, Cadmus turned away from the captain towards the on-rushing figure. Clemestes caught sight of the attacker’s face and recognised him as the homeless youth he’d tripped over. He looked on in astonishment as the skinny figure hurdled the fallen robber and advanced on Cadmus.
‘Bastard!’ Cadmus hissed.
He thrust his dagger at the youth, aiming for his throat. But the young man was faster than the heavily built footpad and deftly evaded the blow. Cadmus grunted in frustration as he stabbed at thin air. He roared and lunged again, slashing wildly and forcing the youth to jerk back out of range, then leapt at his retreating opponent, driving the blade down at his stomach. In one swift motion the youth parried the thrust with a quick sweep of his forearm before he stepped towards his opponent, throwing a punch at the latter’s head. There was the dull crack of bone against bone and Cadmus’s head snapped back, the dagger tumbling from his grip and clattering to the ground.
‘Watch out!’ Clemestes cried.
The youth spun around as the robber shook his groggy head clear and scrambled to his feet, launching himself at the interloper. The younger man dived forward and grabbed the fallen dagger before whirling around to face the robber. He dropped into a crouch as the footpad threw a ragged punch at him, neatly ducking the blow. Then he sprang up on the balls of his feet and stabbed out with the dagger, driving the sharpened tip at his assailant’s stomach. The footpad grunted as the blade sank deep. His mouth went slack and he wavered on the spot as his eyes lowered to the handle protruding from his guts. A glistening patch spread out from the wound and stained his tunic.
The youth wrenched the blade free as the robber slumped in a writhing heap, and turned to face Cadmus, who had scraped himself off the ground. By now the third man had also rushed forward, and he stood alongside his comrade, the pair eyeing their young opponent warily.
‘Come on, then!’ the youth yelled. ‘Which one of you bastards wants it next?’
Both robbers hesitated. Their eyes shifted back and forth between their wounded companion and the young killer standing over him, clutching the dagger in his bloodstained hand. There was a crazed look in his eyes and his lean muscles were taut, like a wild animal about to pounce. For a moment no one dared to move. Then voices broke the silence, approaching from the direction of the main quay. Cadmus glowered at the youth, then nodded at his companion, and the two footpads turned and sprinted down the alley, heading back through the warehouse district, away from the sound. Relief swept through Clemestes as he watched them disappear from sight.
The youth tucked the blade into his belt and hurried over to him. ‘Are you all right?’ he asked.
Clemestes forced a smile. ‘I’ll be fine. Just a little shaken up.
I thought those bastards were going to kill me.’
‘That lot are nasty pieces of work all right. But they won’t be causing you any more trouble.’ The youngster cocked his head at the dying footpad. ‘One of ’em, at least.’
‘No.’ Clemestes frowned at the body. ‘I suppose not.’
He tried standing up, but the effort was too great and he slumped back down, trembling with pain and shock.
‘Here. Let me help.’ The youth offered his hand. Clemestes grasped it and rose unsteadily to his feet, grimacing. Every fibre in his body hurt and he struggled to catch his breath.
‘Thank you.’ He tilted his head at the starved-looking figure standing in front of him. ‘What’s your name?’
‘Telemachus. And you?’
‘Clemestes, captain of Selene.’ He bowed his head. ‘I’m in your debt, young Telemachus. You saved my life.’
Telemachus shrugged. ‘I just happened to be nearby, that’s all. Anyone would’ve done the same.’
‘I sincerely doubt that.’
The captain fell silent for a moment as he considered the youth. He was dressed in tattered rags and looked to be no older than fifteen or sixteen. His cheeks and chin were laced with knotted white scar tissue. Another one of the desperate abandoned children of Piraeus, Clemestes thought. The progeny of a visiting sailor who’d enjoyed a quick fling with one of the local women, dumped in the street at birth and left to fend for himself. The port was crawling with them. And yet there was something about Telemachus that intrigued him. This poor, miserable wretch had bested three hardened criminals, and Clemestes sensed a fiery resilience in him.
‘Where are you headed?’ Telemachus asked. ‘I’ll give you a hand.’
‘My ship,’ the captain croaked. He waved a hand in the direction of the harbour and winced. ‘Shit . . . They’ve given me a thorough working-over.’
Telemachus nodded. ‘We’d best get moving, in case they do return.’
He slipped an arm around Clemestes’ back, and the two of them set off down the alley towards the harbour, as the dying man let out a deep groan behind them.
Pirata by Simon Scarrow and T.J. Andrews is out now in hardback, ebook and audio.