When Makron is presuaded to take his sick freedwoman and mistress Gorgo to try an overnight sleeping cure at a popular shrine, Diokles smells a rat, collects his slaves Hylas and Kharis and joins them. His suspicions are proved correct.
There is a time of night, even in a city like
, when silence
falls and the stars hang heavy in the sky. At this time the dome of the sky
softens and descends over the city like a blanket, while on the ground beneath
people sleep on in their thousands. Athens
Only those who lie awake outdoors feel its power: the guards of the Spartan army out in the fields across Attika, on watch amongst smoking crops and rubble; trusted slaves guarding warehouses in Peiraieus or cargo in the holds of ships rocking and bobbing in the harbour; young almost-soldiers patrolling the walls of
Diokles looked up at the sky above the shrine of Amynos, across at the sleeping Makron and the sleeping Gorgo, exchanged glances by torchlight with Hylas at the door and Kharis draped over Gorgo, and yawned. Nothing had happened. The young priest had left some while ago. No movement, no sound. Nothing. Somewhere deep under the ground close beneath him Amynos himself lay, long dead, his old tired soul working to heal the sleeping Gorgo.
The torches died and the darkness began to thin slowly. The cool, deep grey-black of the first drift of morning came, scented with dew. A mouse flickered across the courtyard, more sound than shape. The clap of sandals on stone approached from The Street of the Tripods, passed and faded away. Diokles leaned back against the wall and his eyes began to close.
There was a sharp scuffling in the dust beside him and he jerked awake again. An arm clamped his throat and a powerful hand gripped his jaw, holding his mouth closed. He struggled to stand up and fight but was forced to the ground again, his spine jolting against the sanctuary wall. A knife pricked Diokles’ side and he stiffened. His brain cleared and he thought fast, counting facts in the dark, adding them up. There were two of them at least, he decided, light enough on their feet not to wake him until they were upon him. One was strong in the arms and the one with a knife still had a hand free.
Faster than the stab of a heron into a pool, Diokles saw shadows fanning out across the courtyard, one making towards Hylas, two more towards Makron. Another and another came like wraiths, then Hylas was up, club raised, swinging at the shadows.
Gorgo’s howl brought Makron to his feet in a movement, from sleep to action in a second, but the two were upon him, clubbing and kicking.
The knife came again, deeper this time. Diokles stabbed backwards with an elbow aiming blind for the groin, and heard a cry. The hand over his mouth shifted and he bit down on it like a dog. The knife slipped into his flesh, a hand’s width, and he wrenched at the arm around his throat, twisting and falling, rolling the man over on the ground. He jerked free, lifted the man by his arm and flung him headfirst at the wall. As he collapsed, the other fled limping across the courtyard and out into the street.
Now Gorgo and Kharis were screaming, a high wail that pierced Diokles’ head like red-hot steel. He ran towards the sound and found Makron struggling weakly against one attacker, who also had Kharis clinging to his back. Hylas was laying vigorously into the other, who broke away and disappeared into the street like a rat into a sewer. In a fraction of a second Diokles put a headlock on Makron’s assailant and dragged him away, sending Kharis flying.
‘Don’t break his neck,’ Makron muttered, face down. ‘This is a sacred place.’ Then he crawled slowly to his hands and knees. Diokles thumped the anonymous man several times in the face with his clenched fist, threw him out onto the street and watched him stumble cursing into the darkness. Flicking his eyes over his shoulder, Diokles saw that the last man had recovered from his encounter with the precinct wall and disappeared, too.
‘They’ve all gone, master,’ Hylas said.
Diokles patted his shoulder in a gesture of incongruous tenderness. ‘Yes, Hylas,’ he said. ‘Gone.’ He suddenly began to feel pain in his side, put his hand there and found blood on it. He found a stone and sat down while Hylas tore his tunic and pressed cloth into the wound, binding it round his master’s waist.
Dazed and sweating, Diokles just succeeded in not wincing as the cloth tightened around the knife-wound. He began to talk, partly to distract himself.
‘I know almost all I need to know,’ he said. ‘And they know, too, the killers of Sosigenes and Skylax. They used clubs on everyone else, but saved a knife for me. I’m alive for now, but now I must finish it.’ He waved an arm. ‘Leave it now, Hylas - I can make it home. Look after Makron. And well done, Kharis, too. Brave for a little one.’
As he turned away he caught a glimpse of Kharis’ teeth as she grinned in the darkness. Beside her walked Gorgo, a black shadow against grey but upright and moving freely, kindled for a while by danger.