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- Beric the Briton - 60/74 -
my hand against you." Then he lifted his voice and cried, "Run, Philo!"
The revellers by this time had all started to their feet. Nero, shrinking backwards behind them, called loudly for help. Rufinus, who had shown bravery in the wars, drew a dagger from beneath his toga and sprang at Beric. The latter caught his uplifted wrist, and with a sharp wrench forced him to drop the weapon; then he seized him in his grasp. "You shall do no more mischief, Rufinus," he said, and raising him in his arms hurled him with tremendous force against a marble pillar, where he fell inert and lifeless, his skull being completely beaten in by the blow.
The hall rang with the shrieks of women and the shouts of men. There was a sound of heavy footsteps, and eight of the Praetorian guards, with drawn swords, ran in on the other side of the chamber. "Boduoc!" Beric shouted; and in a moment his follower stood beside him and handed him his sword and buckler.
"Kill him!" Nero shouted frantically. "The traitor would have slain me."
Beric and Boduoc stepped back to the door by which they had entered, and awaited the onset of the Praetorians. For a moment these hesitated, for Beric's figure was well known in the palace, and not one of them but had heard of his encounter with the lion. The emperor's shouts, however, overcame their reluctance, and shoulder to shoulder they rushed forward to the attack. Two fell instantly, helmet and head cloven by the swords of the Britons, who at once took the offensive and drove the others before them, slaying three more and putting the others to flight. But the success was temporary, for now a great body of the guard poured into the room.
"Step back through the doorway, Boduoc," Beric said; "their numbers will not avail them then."
The doors were ten feet in width. This gave room to but three men to enter at once and use their arms to advantage, and for two or three minutes the Britons kept the Praetorians at bay, eight of them having fallen beneath their blows; then there was a shout, and the Roman soldiers came running in at a door at the end of the chamber. "Fall back to the next door," Beric said; but as he spoke there was a rush behind, and nineteen Britons ran into the room, and uttering the war cry of the Iceni flung themselves upon the Roman soldiers. These, taken by surprise at the sudden appearance of these tall warriors, and ignorant of what further reinforcements might be coming up, gave ground, and were speedily beaten back, a score of them falling beneath the Britons' swords.
"Now retreat!" Beric cried as the room was cleared; "retreat at full speed. Show them the way, Boduoc, by the staircase down into the garden. Quick! there is not a moment to lose. I will guard the rear."
They ran down the passage, through Beric's room, down a long corridor, and then by stairs leading thence into the garden, which was indeed a park of considerable size, with lakes, shrubberies, and winding walks. The uproar in the palace was no longer heard by the time they were halfway across the park; but they ran at full speed until they reached a door in the wall. Of this Beric had some time before obtained a key from the head gardener, and always carried this about with him. As they stopped they looked back towards the palace. Distant shouts could be heard, and the lights of numbers of torches could be seen spreading out in all directions.
Beric opened the door and locked it behind him when all had passed out. "Now," he said to his companions, "make your way down to the road leading out to the Alban Hills. Break up and go singly, so that you may not be noticed. It will be a good half hour before the news of what has occurred is known beyond the palace. Do not pass through the frequented streets, but move along the dark lanes as much as possible. When half a mile beyond the city we will reunite."
An hour later the whole party were gathered beyond the city. All were delighted to escape from what they considered slavery, and the fact that they had again bucklers on their arms and swords by their sides made them feel as if their freedom were already obtained.
"This puts one in mind of old times," Boduoc said joyously; "one might think we were about to start on an expedition in the fens. Well, they have taught us all somewhat more than we knew before, and we will show them that the air of Rome has robbed us of none of our strength. Where go we now, Beric?"
"First to the ludus of Scopus; I learned a week since that he had taken his band out again to the Alban Hills for the hot season. I believe that most of his men will join us, if not all. As soon as the news is spread that we are in arms we could, if we wished it, be joined by scores of gladiators from the other schools. There are hundreds who would, if the standard of revolt were raised, prefer dying fighting in the open to being slain to gratify a Roman mob."
"Ay, that there are," put in another of the band. "I have never ceased to lament that I did not fall that day on our island in the fens."
"Think you there will be pursuit, Beric?" another asked.
"No; the first thought of Nero will be to assemble all the Praetorians for his protection; they will search the palace and the park, expecting attack rather than thinking of pursuit. In the morning, when they find that all is quiet, and that it is indeed only us with whom there is trouble, they will doubtless send parties of searchers over the country; but long before that we shall be a day's march ahead. My wish is to gain the mountains. I do not want to head a great rebellion against Rome--disaster would surely come of it at last, and I should have only led men to their death. A hundred men is the outside number I will take. With that number we may live as outlaws among the mountains to the south; we could move so rapidly that large forces could not follow us, and be strong enough to repulse small ones. There is plenty of game among the hills, and we should live as we did at home, chiefly by hunting."
Just as they were approaching the hills a quick step was heard behind them, and the lad Philo ran up.
"Ah, you have overtaken us, Philo! 'tis well, lad, for your life would have been forfeited had you stayed in Rome.
"Well," he asked, drawing him aside, "you saw the lady Aemilia. What said she?"
"She said, 'Tell my lord that I obey, but that I pray him to let me join him and share his dangers if it be possible; but be it tomorrow or five years hence, he will find me waiting for him at the place he knows of.' Norbanus was present when she spoke. I told him what I had heard in the banqueting room, and he said 'Beric has done rightly. Tell him that he has acted as a Roman should do, but as Romans no longer act, caring less for their honour than do the meanest slaves, and that I thank him for having thus defended my daughter against indignity.' He was glad, he said, that his life would end now, for it was a burden to him under such conditions. He gave me this bag of gold to bring to you, saying that he should have no farther need for it, and that, leaving in such haste, you would not have time to furnish yourself with money. It is heavy," the boy said. "I should have caught you some time earlier, but twenty or more pounds' weight makes a deal of difference in a long run."
On arriving at the house of Scopus Beric bade the others wait without, and stepping over the slaves lying at the entrance, he went quietly to the sleeping chamber of the lanista.
"Who is this?" Scopus asked as he entered.
"It is I, Beric; throw your mantle on and come outside with me, Scopus. I would speak with you alone, and do not wish that all should know that I have been here."
"In trouble?" Scopus asked as they left the house. "Ay, lad, I expected it, and knew that sooner or later it would come. What is it?"
"Nero ordered me to fetch Aemilia to his foul carousal. I refused. Rufinus, at whose instigation he acted, attacked me. I hurled him against a pillar, and methinks he was killed, and then Nero, in alarm for his life, called in the Praetorians. Boduoc and my countrymen joined me, and we slew some thirty of them, and then made our escape, and are taking to the mountains."
"And you have come to ask my gladiators to join?" Scopus said shortly.
"No," Beric replied; "when I started I thought of so doing, but as I walked hither I decided otherwise. It would not be fair to you. Did I ask them some would join, I know, others might not. The loss of their services I could make up to you; but if it were known that we had been here, and that some of your band had joined me, Nero's vengeance would fall on you all."
"I thank you, Beric; if some went I must go myself, for I dare not remain, and though I wish you well, and hate the tyrant, I am well off and comfortable, and have no desire to throw away my life."
"There is one I should like to take with me--Porus; we were good friends when I was here, and I know that he hates this life and longs to be free from it. He would have run away and joined the gladiators when they rose at Praeneste had I not dissuaded him. He could leave without the others knowing it, and in the morning you might affect a belief that he has run away, and give notice to the magistrate here and have him sought for. In that way there would be no suspicion of his having joined us. I know that he is valuable to you, being, I think, the best of your troop, but I will pay you whatever price you place his services at."
"No, no," Scopus said, "I will give him to you, Beric, for the sake of our friendship, and for your consideration for me in not taking the rest with you. I have done well by you and him. Stay here and I will fetch him out to you; it may be that many will desert both from me and the other lanistae when they hear that you have taken to the mountains, but for that I cannot be blamed. You have come far out of your way to come hither."
"Yes, 'tis a long detour, but it will matter little. We shall skirt round the foot of the hills, cross the Lyris below Praeneste, and then make straight to the mountains. They will not search for us in that direction, and we will take shelter in a wood when day breaks, and gain the mountains tomorrow night. Once there we shall be safe, and shall move farther south to the wild hills between
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