FLIGHT OF THE EAGLE 17
A camp fire flickered in a dusty clearing south of Melitene, somewhere in central Cappadocia. Even Valerius didn’t know exactly where they were, only that when he faced the rising sun at the next morning’s dawn they would take the path dictated by the wooden fist that replaced his right hand. South, where they must eventually reach the Euphrates River.
Fortuna had favoured them, and the shadow of Durio and the Emperor’s assassins had long since faded. When they had finally reached Tomis where the Danuvius met the Great Sea, Valerius had hoped to take ship to Trapezus, but had ended up arranging passage on a merchant vessel bound for Sinope, which had added a hundred miles to their journey on the far shore. When Durio reached bustling Tomis he would waste days trying to discover which ship had carried the fugitives, if he ever did. Even if he knew about Sinope they could have taken any of a dozen roads from the port, with a hundred possible destinations.
Despite the warmth of the night Lucius snuggled in beside him. He could hear Tabitha’s gentle snoring and the soft murmur of Olivia’s dream talk. Shabolz would be keeping his eternal vigil over by the tethered horses.
‘You said you took the eagle from a king, father?’ Lucius whispered.
Valerius smiled. He was surprised it had taken this long for his son’s curiosity to overome his shyness.
‘Rome had suffered a great defeat,’ he kept his voice low. ‘And the Emperor asked your father to lead an army back into Dacia to regain the Empire’s honour.’ It hadn’t quite been like that. Domitian had blamed him for Fuscus’s defeat and his message said that if Valerius failed he might as well follow Fuscus’s lead and fall on his sword. On the other hand, if he succeeded the new governor of Moesia had promised a second Gold Crown of Valour.
‘We used the following winter to recover and gather an army. It would be much stronger than the first expedition. In place of the shattered First legion, whose survivors would form our reserve, I was to have the Fifth Macedonica from Oescus, the sister legion of the unit which had lost its eagle, to add to the Fourth and the First. I also used the time to form a special force of auxiliaries, mountain troops from Noricum, Rhaetia and Helvetia. We marched on the first day of the spring planting.’
They’d taken a different route towards Sarmizegetusa,but eventually the legions had been forced into the mountains. Where King Decebalus waited.
‘I knew the Dacians would attempt to do to us what they’d done to my friend Fuscus. What their king didn’t know was that was exactly what I wanted him to do.’
‘Because you had your mountain troops this time?’
‘Exactly,’ Valerius ruffled his son’s hair. It all sounded so simple now. No hint of the endless hours of waiting. The doubt that he had condemned every man of the six cohorts he had used to bait the trap. Wondering if Decebalus, a wolf in human guise, had sniffed out the threat and was even now moving to cut him off from his supplies. ‘The ambushers became the ambushed. My mountain men chased the Dacians from the heights and our brave soldiers destroyed the flower of Dacian manhood in the valley below. The river flowed red with their blood,’ he added the poetic flourish knowing no war story was complete for Lucius without its ration of gore.
‘And you killed Decebalus?’
‘No,’ Valerius laughed at the thought. ‘The king fled. In truth his heart was never in the fight. We didn’t realise then how much our earlier campaign and his invasion of Moesia had weakened his strength. We captured his baggage train.’
One of the prisoners had been Decebalus’s interpreter. In return for his freedom he’d shown Valerius the location of the booty taken from the earlier battles, removed from the baggage train as the Romans closed in and hidden in a cave. Conspicuous among it had been the eagle of the Fifth.
‘So you took the eagle and returned in triumph.’ Lucius’s voice faded to a murmur and Valerius felt his son relax into sleep.
It hadn’t quite been like that. Decebalus had retreated to Sarmizegetusa and Valerius and his legions had besieged the city. Eventually the king was forced to ask for terms and, after months of negotiations, Domitian had finally agreed to a treaty that was surprisingly favourable to the Dacians. It was the following spring by the time Valerius was able to return from the campaign and cross the bridge of boats back in to Moesia. He hadn’t drawn his sword from the beginning to the end of the expedition.
He remembered the solitary figure emerging from the morning mist as his horse clattered over the boards on to dry land. Shabolz handed him a scroll of tattered parchment. ‘This came two days ago.’
Josephus hadn’t even had time to encode his message.
“Your shield has fallen. The Emperor has discovered the location of the final statement and Saturninus and all the other holders are dead. Flee. The arrangements are made as we discussed.”
‘Well?’ he said to Shabolz.
‘They are waiting at a farm east of Viminacium. We have food and forage for a week.’
‘Then let us not delay.’ Valerius dismissed his bodyguard of legionary cavalry and they rode off into the murk. ‘You will like Emesa, old friend. The streets are paved with enough gold even to satisfy a Pannonian bandit and Tabitha’s uncle will make you a lord.’
But first they had to survive. And he had business in Antioch.
(PS. Don't miss tomorrow's bonus double length episode as the story comes to its climactic conclusion).