FLIGHT OF THE EAGLE 18
Antioch. Gem of the east. A cosmopolitan crossroads between east and west which straddled the Orontes River in the shadow of the mountains. The perfect place for a fugitive to seek refuge. The city conjured up mixed memories for Valerius. It had been here, twenty years ago, that he had first been introduced to Rome’s greatest general, Gnaeus Domitius Corbulo, the man who taught him more about soldiering than any other, and had been like a father to him. He’d been an honoured member of the general’s staff and lived in the magnificent palace complex in the centre of the city.
In what seemed another existence entirely, he had passed through Antioch years later, exiled, dishonoured and disgraced, on his journey to meet his friend, the future Emperor Titus, in Jerusalem, in a bid to restore his fortunes. On the way he had met Tabitha in the encounter that had changed his life. Then, he’d spent his time in hiding in a festering slum in the shadow of the mountains. One of the few positives of the visit had been the friendship he had struck up with a Judaean moneylender. Little by little this was where he’d secretly channeled a portion of his fortune in case of just this extremity.
Now, he’d arranged to liquidate just enough of the gold and silver to ensure the family’s passage to Emesa with a substantial bodyguard, while the rest was transferred to the city by the next merchant caravan. They’d pick up the disposable treasure and the bodyguard at the north gate at dawn the following morning before setting off on the journey.
The arrangements made, it was with a lift in his heart that he made his way through the back streets as darkness fell towards the lodging house where he’d left Tabitha and the children. His fighting days were over. Time to settle down in the sun-dappled villa he remembered on the fringes of King Sohaemus’s palace, with its fountains and beautiful vistas across river and desert. Time to watch his children grow. To read from the king’s vast library and to learn from his scientists and scholars. Domitian and Rome and all its perils were behind them now.
Still, he took care of his surroundings and the people who inhabited them. It was in these streets and alleys he’d come within a mail-ring of death. If the assassin’s knife had contained a featherweight more force it would have punctured the chain vest he’d purchased on a whim and his bones would have mouldered long since in one of the festering streams that abounded this district.
He was close to the end of the alleyway and within a hundred paces of the lodging house when he heard the cries of alarm and the unmistakeable smell of burning.
Flames were already licking out from the ground floor windows of the rooming house and a large crowd had gathered in the open square in front.Valerius’s first instinct was to run straight for the door, but cold logic told him this was no accident and whoever had set the fire was part of the crowd. Instead, he ran diagonally across the street towards the rear of the burning building. He was halfway along the alley when he almost tripped over a shadowy figure. He bent low and could just make out Shabolz’s unmistakable features. He checked the throat for a pulse and his hand came away sticky with blood. Alive, but only just. If he could …
A child’s scream pierced his heart like a knife
He made no conscious decision to abandon his friend. His feet carried him away from Shabolz of heir own volition. As he approached the kitchen entrance of the rooming house a heavy body smashed into him from the right, knocking him against the alley wall. He would have ignored the obstruction, but two more figures loomed from the darkness in front of him. In the light of the flames he recognized Durio. The assassin smiled. ‘We thought you were inside, but this way is better. Now we’ll be able to take your head back to the Emperor.’
Valerius reached for the inside of his wooden fist and a small sliver of steel flicked out from the middle knuckle. Durio only laughed. ‘We’re not afraid of your little toy. Three against one.’ He shook his head at his victim’s naivety. ‘You’re a dead man.’
‘No,’ a voice rasped out of the darkness. ‘Three against two, and you are.’
Dario’s companions gaped and Valerius launched himself forward. The killer hacked at him with a short sword, but Valerius blocked it with the wooden fist and the blade stuck for a precious moment in the seasoned oak. He smashed his head into the other man’s face and knocked him backwards, but his opponent released the sword and wrapped arms of incredible strength around him. Valerius kicked at the man’s legs and swung him in a circle, the snarling face so close he could smell the stink of his breath. A terrible cry tore from the yawning mouth and the grip slackened. Over the dying man’s shoulder he saw Durio staring in wonder as he struggled to free the blade that should have been buried in Valerius’s back.
Valerius pushed the dying man aside and while Durio still fought with the blade he punched the assassin between the eyes with his wooden fist. With a terrible cry Durio’s hands flew to his forehead and his eyes flickered as a tiny wound pulsed blood before he fell backwards like a toppled tree.
Valerius turned to where Shabolz slumped on his knees over the man he’d killed, with blood hanging in obscene darkstrings from his mouth. Without another word he leapt over Durio’s body and ran through the open kitchen door of his lodgings.
He was met with a pall of smoke and heat. No flames on this side of the building yet, but … another scream – Olivia? - galvanized him into action. He ran through the kitchen to the stairway, only to be confronted by a wall of flame. Durio had done his work well. They’d piled furniture from the lower rooms onto the stair and set it alight to block the way. It was hopeless.
But even as Valerius gave in to despair a howling figure came flying down the stairsand jumped straight through the flaming barrier to run past him into the street. If someone could get down, a determined man could get up. Valerius launched himself at the burning chairs and rugs, ignoring the agony in his left hand and the flames that licked at his face. The scent of singeing hair and cloth filled his nostrils and he knew he was on fire, but at last he made a gap and hauled himself up the stairs towards the room they’d rented. A locked door, but a flimsy affair. A heedless shoulder charge and he was through. Olivia screamed again at the smoking apparition that burst into the room, but Valerius ignored his daughter. Tabitha lay by the bed either drugged or overwhelmed with smoke as she’d begun knotting sheets together to make a rope. Lucius knelt by her body vainly struggling to continue the work his mother had begun before she collapsed.
‘We’ve no time,’ Valerius’s voice was a painful rasp, like a crow’s call. ‘Get to the window with your sister.’ He grabbed the sheet with his clawed left hand. A sharp crack and a new surge of smoke told him part of the roof had come down on the stairway. ‘Olivia take hold of the sheet. Lucius wrap your arms round your sister and do the same. Tightly now.’
He took them in his arms and lifted them across the sill, wrapping the sheet around his shoulder and lodging himself against the window frame. The weight almost pulled him after them, but somehow he held on with his single hand, though the pressure stripped the burned skin from his hand. Lucius dropped to the ground from six feet and caught his sister as she fell after him.
Valerius pulled the sheet back inside and ran to his wife. Fire twisted and crackled in the doorway and flames licked across the ceiling above them as smoke billowed in clouds almost obscuring their escape route. No time to tie the sheet around Tabitha, even if he’d been able. He picked her up across his forearms and carried her to the window. She was stirring now, but he ignored her whispered questions. He took a firm grip on her arm with his burned left hand and lowered her as far as he could. Before he released her, part of his reeling mind understood that Lucius had rallied the bystanders and laid out some sort of sacks as a cushion for her fall.
Once Tabitha was gone, Valerius’s brain seemed to freeze and he didn’t know what to do next. He stood reeling in the window until a roar of thunder from above his head broke the spell and he launched himself across the sill as the roof fell in.
Oddly, he felt no pain. He knew he was lying on his back and he could hear people moving around him.
‘Look at his face.’
‘The poor man.’
‘By all the gods, his flesh has melted.’
‘No.’ A new voice, full of authority, a woman’s voice made rough by her smoke-ravaged throat, but one he could never mistake. ‘He is mine and I will not let him die.’
Domitia Augusta unwrapped the soft leather from the package Josephus had placed before her and her breath caught in her throat as she recognizedwhat lay within. The eagle. Her father’s eagle. For a moment tears welled up in her eyes, but she dashed them away. She would not cry.
She went to her writing desk and picked up a stylus. Enough. Her father had always told her that a Corbulo did not have the luxury of choice, only duty. Well, she was Domitia Longina Corbulo and she would not be bound by a dead man's edict. She had always known this day would come. Her duty was to Rome and the people of Rome, not to the monster who had forced her into marriage and left her in fear of her life every day since.
‘You will find Gaius Valerius Verrens wherever he is and give him this,’ she continued writing as she issued the order to the Judaean. ‘Tell him I have one last favour to ask of him.’
I hope you've enjoyed Valerius's last adventure. Thanks for staying with me along the way.