Book extract: Paul Waters' Of Merchants and Heroes

In Waters' debut novel a young Roman vows to avenge his father's murder
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The pirates had made their camp in the ruins of some once-great city. Some ancient cataclysm must have made the citizens flee. It stood abandoned, crumbling whitewashed houses and caved-in roofs spread out across the plateau to the edges of the pine forest. Their leader was waiting in what must once have been the marketplace, standing on the steps of a ruined temple, looking out to sea.

He was not like the others, who were dark and thickset and festooned with looted jewels. His face was broad and boyish, and he had a mass of flaxen hair that fell curling about his shoulders.

A charcoal fire was glowing in a bronze bowl on the altar. As we drew near he seized a fistful of incense from a casket and tossed it in. The incense spluttered and hissed, sending a plume of blue smoke up between the bleached columns. Then he turned and grinned at us. He seemed almost friendly, until you saw his eyes, which were dark and cunning.

From beside me someone spoke, in a voice charged with anger and disgust. "You dare to do honour to the gods, who uphold order in the world?" It took me a moment to realise it was my father.

The other passengers stared at him. But the blond pirate threw his head back and laughed.

"Do you suppose," he cried, "I am honouring Zeus the Cloud-Gatherer, old man? Or Far-Shooting Apollo? Or Harmony? Or Justice?"

He swept his arm to and fro through the incense-smoke, scattering it. Then he leapt down the remaining steps.

Close up, I could see his boyish prettiness was flawed. Under his short beard his cheeks were pockmarked, and there were lines about his eyes, making them look oddly older than the rest of him, like an old man's eyes planted in a young face. With a sudden wild movement he gestured back at the temple. The roof had collapsed long ago; the faded columns pointed up to the empty sky, supporting nothing. Within, in the cella where the image of the god should have stood, were piled up glittering heaps of stolen treasure: strong dark-wood chests bound with brass and iron, tall amphoras of wine and oil, inlaid caskets of the kind men keep their savings in, and women their jewels; and, strewn all about, great piles of embroidered linen, silks, and fine dyed wool, cloaks and dresses spilling from open chests and tossed about on the flagstones like worthless rags. If their owners had been ransomed, they had left without their clothes.

"The gods are gone!" cried the blond pirate at my father. "So I choose my own gods – what could be better? Shall I tell you their names? They are Lawlessness and Impiety! Great Lawlessness, who orders the world, and Impiety, who suckled me at her lush breast."

He laughed, and slapped his thighs, greatly amused, and the other pirates joined in.

"Does that shock you, old man?" he went on, suddenly serious. "But look at me!" He spread his arms out sideways like a man showing off a new tunic. "I am rich and powerful; I have all I desire. And you? You are my prisoner, a broken crushed old fool like all the rest. I live and thrive, and you will soon be dead." His face twisted in a parody of confusion and he thrust up a questioning finger. "So, tell me, whose gods are greater, mine or yours?"

He began to turn away; I do not think he expected an answer. But my father pointed to the sheer edge of the plateau, where an ancient twisted olive tree was growing out of a fissure in the rock. The tree was half dead. On one of the fractured, leafless branches there was a lurid growth of fungus. With a bravery and a depth of anger I never knew he possessed he said in a cold, steady voice, "There are some creatures that live by drawing their life-force from another. For a time they thrive, but when the host they feed upon dies, they die too, for they are nothing in themselves." He nodded at the tree. "Do you recognise it? It is a parasite. And so are you."

There was a stunned, appalled silence. The passengers stared wide-eyed at my father. The only sound came from the harsh rasping of the cicadas.

The pirate's brow creased and the grin melted from his face. From behind, the other passengers began to protest, crying out to this barbarian that my father did not mean what he said, that he spoke only for himself, that fear had unhinged his mind and they would find money to pay for their ransoming. They went on and on, pressing forward, stretching out their arms in entreaty. But my father did not turn, or pay them any heed. His face was set in an expression of calm contempt.

Suddenly the pirate rounded on them. "Shut up!" he yelled.

They ceased as if struck by a thunderbolt. All except the Greek slave, who was beyond controlling himself. He continued with a high-pitched quivering whine, like a keening woman, or a bitch's pup.

The pirate was still standing in front of my father, studying his face. There was a pause. Then he reached into his matted golden hair, searched around, and brought his hand forward once more with his thumb and forefinger pressed together. Between them he was holding a louse. He held it under my father's eyes.

"Look!" he said, grinning, "a parasite; a brother of mine." He crushed the creature and wiped his fingers on his leather tunic. Then he laughed, and after a moment the passengers, in an effort to ingratiate themselves, laughed with him.

All except my father and I. And the girl. We just looked at him in silence.

Eventually the laughter died limply away. It was forced and artificial enough; but no one, it seemed, wanted to be the first to stop. Then the Libyan stepped up.

"Well?" said the blond pirate.

The Libyan manhandled the girl roughly forward. With a flash of his white teeth he said, "Already, Dikaiarchos, the message has been sent. I saw to it myself, before we left Brundisium. Her father will have it by now."

The girl said, "He will pay you nothing."

The blond one, the one called Dikaiarchos, pouted at her. "No? Oh, but I think he will. He is a very rich man, and you are his only daughter. He can spare me a shipful of gold; but he cannot do without you."

He gave her a sweet smile, and she glared back at him. Beside her the Greek slave was still whining, biting his hand in terror. Dikaiarchos frowned and sighed, and made a quick flicking gesture with his hand. At this the Libyan turned, and in one swift fluent relaxed movement, like a man describing an arc, he took a small curved blade from his belt and slit the slave's throat.

© Paul Waters, 2008

'Of Merchants and Heroes' is published by Macmillan at £14.99

About the author

Born in Stafford, Paul Waters ran away to sea at 17. He studied classics at University College London and lived in South Africa for 12 years. He now lives in Cambridge.