A Long Walk Home, by Paul L. Mathews

 

Durio staggered through the Subura, breathing as best he could with a broken nose and a throat full of blood. He cursed under his breath as—seeking some respite from the blazing sun—he leant against a wall beneath a balcony, grateful for the shade. How stupid to underestimate Eurysaces, he thought. Everyone knows him to be a big man, more than capable of defending himself.

I only wanted to warn him. To make him aware that Hostilius wanted his bakery. To give him a chance to flee…

…Instead, here I am, alone and in the Subura, And now I’m the one who’s running.

He looked over his shoulder at them. Yes, they were being discreet. Yes, they were trying to blend into the crowd as they sought to take him by surprise…

…And yes, they outnumbered him three to one.

He grimaced as he staggered on. Two of them. Atilius and Quirinus of the Subura. Two of the dominus Autobus’ favourite attack dogs and gangers with whom Durio had clashed before. Nor were they alone. Seneca was with them, his faithful mastiff by his side.

Four against one, he thought as, hands on his knees. he bent over and gasped for breath. He looked over his shoulder. His pursuers were nowhere to be seen, but he knew they were there, lurking in the crowd. Stalking him. Waiting for him to tire and to fall. And here I am, he thought with a rueful smile, having staggered way from Eurysaces’ bakery in such a hurry I left me spear leaning against his wall.

Another glance over his shoulder, and he caught a glimpse of Atilius as the little man darted from amongst a knot of plebs before—pausing only to whirl his sling about his head and unleash a rock at Durio—he vanished into another kernel of bystanders.

The rock missed him by scant gradii, but it was all the opportunity Durio needed. Clutching his hands to his face, Durio collapsed to his knees as he feigned injury, wailing and pleading for help. Within moments a crowd of assorted plebs, slaves and even and even the bald proprietor from the nearby butcher’s shop in his bloodied apron had gathered about him. Some helped him to his feet, some merely stared, and others muttered between themselves about the violence and savagery that were rife on the streets these days. It mattered little to Durio; this was a chance to get away from his pursuers, and the only chance he needed.

He rose to his feet, pushing his way into the assembled mob before, ducking low, he staggered away and further into the crowd.

*

It had taken all day. Covered in sweat and his own dried blood, he’d made his way through the city’s crowded streets and out of the Subura, all the time taking ultimate care to hide amongst Rome’s citizens, slaves and merchants as he carefully—painfully—crept ever closer to his destination…

…And now he was here, banging on the door as the shadows lengthened around him. Looking over his shoulder, he saw the sun setting over the roofs and walls, flaming red as Apollo continued his dogged pursuit of the moon. His breath caught in his throat. There, at the end of the street and striding toward him, were Atilius, Quirinus, Seneca and his damned mastiff. As Durio watched, Atilius gave the grinning Seneca a denarius. Making eye contact with Durio and bowing slightly, Seneca turned and walked away, his slavering mastiff at his heel.

Damn it, thought Durio. Seneca’s damned hound must have tracked me all this way, and now Atilius and Quirinus have me in the open. He looked around. Sure enough, what few plebs and other assorted citizens had occupied the street at this late hour had dissipated still further. There was nowhere to hide now, unless…

He banged on the door again, harder this time.

“Open the door!” he shouted. He looked over his shoulder and toward the approaching Atilius and Quirinus. Even now Atilius winked at him, placing a rock in his sling. “Open the door! Ple—”

The door opened slightly, and the doctor’s thin, creased face peered through the gap.

“Can I help y—”

“Yes, you can,” said Durio as he pushed the door open and shoved his way past the thin man. He gave the room beyond a cursory glance; dirty, and with a red-stained table in the centre of the room, its floor was covered with straw and hay clotted with dried gore and blood. Rusty saws and knives sat on another, smaller table. “You’re the one called Thessalus, yes?”

“I am he,” the doctor said. He licked his lips as his eyes wandered over Durio and his wounds. Durio shuddered; he’d seen men look at whores with less relish. “I see you have been hurt my friend.” He reached for Durio with thin, twitching fingers. “Perhaps I may be of service?”

“Not on your life!” said Durio as he staggered away from the doctor. “Or, more likely, mine.”

“Then why come here?” said the doctor. He looked genuinely crestfallen, noted Durio.

“Don’t look so upset,” Durio said, “I’ve led two men here. Two men who mean to kill me.”

“And?” asked Thessalus, his brow furrowed in confusion.

“Here’s two denarii,” said Durio, producing the grubby coins form his purse. “They’re yours if you show me a way out of the back of this house and operate on anyone who follows.”

“Two denarii!” Thessalus’ face lit up wide a wide smile and even wider eyes. “To operate on two more volunteers! You have a deal, my wounded friend…”

*

True to his word, the demented doctor had ushered Durio to a door which led to a back alley. The doctor had then wished Durio a safe journey home and locked the door behind him. Even as the key clicked in the lock, Durio could hear a muffled commotion and a splintering of wood as Atilius and Quirinus no doubt forced the front door open in pursuit of their quarry. Grimacing and still short of breath, Durio listened at the door. A moment’s silence followed…

…And then the screams began.

No, thought Durio, not screams; shrieks. Agonised and short, these staccato stabs of primal terror pierced the door and echoed about the narrow alley as, no doubt, Atilius and Quirinus felt the full horror of Thessalus’ attentions.

Better them than me, thought Durio as, slumped against the grimy wall, he made his way down the alley. I need to be on my way. It’s getting dark…

…And it’s a long walk home.

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