FLIGHT OF THE EAGLE 16
If you’re in pain, you’re not dead. Valerius tried to raise his head, but a bolt of agony suggested he’d be better to stay still. His last memory was … what was his last memory? He’d been with Fuscus on campaign. Shabolz … no Shabolz had stayed in Viminacium to guard Tabitha and the children. Open country. Then mountains. Then … it came flooding back in a series of flashing images and moments of sheer terror. The ambush. The knowledge they were doomed. The attempt to reach Decebalus and that final moment when the falx carved through his helmet into his skull. At least that’s what it had felt like, and to an extent still did. His skull certainly felt as if it had been split in two. He tried to open his eyes, but the lids seemed to be sewn shut. It was only when he attempted to raise his hand to identify the problem that he realized they were tied behind his back.
Somewhere beyond the ringing sound in his ears he could hear people speaking, but the words meant nothing to him. He winced as he felt a hand on his shoulder, but the hand turned out to be gentle and accompanied by a second that wiped his face with a damp cloth. Gradually, it cleaned away whatever was covering his eyes and he was able to open them … only to close them just as quickly as a fiery light lanced through his brain. He waited a few moments before trying again.
The first thing he noticed was Fuscus, or at least Fuscus’s head. It lay upon a quite substantial pile of similarly detached appendages, each with it’s twisted features frozen in the moment of death. The untidy heap of bloodied heads lay to the left of a throne and in the throne sat a man who Valerius recognized as the king he’d been trying to kill. Decebalus barked a string of wordsthat must have been an order, because someone pulled Valerius to his feet.
He attempted to straighten so he could face his fate like the man he was, a Roman officer, and a Hero of Rome, but his body seemed to have been trampled by a herd of oxen and his limbs wouldn’t obey his brain. Decebalus studied him with a look that should have conveyed hatred and malevolence, but all Valerius could read in the dark eyes was puzzlement. The king spoke again.
‘King Decebalus says you deserve to die.’
The words came from a short, dark-haired man at the king’s side. Precise latin, but with a pronounced Greek accent. As for the import, there was no denying the king was correct. That’s what happened to invaders who failed. Valerius felt regret more than fear. He was a soldier and dying was what soldiers did. He should have died many times before. Just make it quick.
Of course, there was no guarantee of that. He had a vivid memory of a lump of quivering flesh impaled on a thorn bush, who’d once been the commander of an auxiliary cavalry patrol. That had been the last time he’d crossed the Danuvius and he vowed that, in the unlikely event he survived, he would never cross that accursed river again.
He let his eyes drift over his surroundings. A fine evening, with the birds singing their nightly chorus. Fuscus’s head wasn’t the only trophy on display. A pile of cohort and centurial standards lay at Decebalus’s feet … and among them, taking pride of place, was the unmistakeable form of an Imperial eagle. Valerius let out an involuntary groan. Sending the eagle to safety had been Fuscus’s single successful act. Had it all been in vain? Yet there was something about this eagle that troubled him. Closer inspection told him it wasn’t the eagle of the First Adiutrix, because the head was to the left, and the First’s eagle had been twisted to the right. This was the eagle of the Fifth Adiutrix. Corbulo’s eagle.
He realized the interpreter was continuing to translate the king’s words. ‘The king intends to use you to send a message.’
Now Valerius felt a shiver run through him. The doomed auxiliary decurion had certainly sent a potent message to those who’d discovered him, flayed of every inch of flesh and round eyeballs filled with horror staring from the wreckage of what had once been a face.
‘He had intended that the Praetorian prefect Cornelius Fuscus should carry his message to the Emperor, and he had given orders that he be spared. Sadly the governor decided he could not face the shame of surrender and fell upon his own sword.’ Poor Fuscus, he would have known Domitian would never have let him live after this disaster. But what was the man saying? ‘You, the officer who showed the courage and sacrifice the king would expect of his own warriors, will go in his stead. Tell the Emperor that King Decebalus’s venture into Moesia and Pannonia was a matter of political necessity to cement his hold on his crown.It will not be repeated. Emperor Domitian will understand the pressures of political necessity. The king wants only peace with his neighbours and an end to this unfortunate misunderstanding.’
Something threatened to burst inside Valerius. If the king believed Domitian would forget this ‘unfortunate misunderstanding’, he was due to learna harsh lesson. But that didn’t matter.He was going to live. He would feel the touch of Tabitha’s lips again and hear his children’s laughter. Of course, in the longer term, Domitian might have something to say about his future, but he would meet that hurdle when it came.
He was going to live.