On the tenth day of the expedition the Emperor’s entourage descended on Ravenna like a flock of locusts. Domitia’s officials requisitioned a fine house where she could stay the night and prepared a large room for a special banquet on the occasion of her thirty-seventh birthday. Tabitha was invited to attend as one of Domitia’s companions. She had little choice, though she dreaded the thought of being in close proximity to the Emperor who fostered such a visceral hatred for Valerius.
It quickly became apparent as they settled into their couches around an enormous gilt table that Domitian, though he sent his wife the blessings of the day, was too busy to make an appearance. Domitia showed no sign of displeasure as she accepted the congratulations of her companions. They included two or three young men, the husbands of her particular friends, who took care to keep a chaste distance – Domitian was known to harbour a sometimes fatal jealousy. A couch to Domitia’s right remained empty and Tabitha wondered if it had some kind of symbolism to do with the Emperor’s absence. She looked away, and when she looked back it had been filled. Her heart felt as if it had stopped.
That face. It still had the burned out, tormented nobility she remembered, though the jowls were heavier and the broad forehead lined and creased. He contrived to wear his thinning hair in the Judaean style, tight-curled and an unlikely shade of crow black given the white that shot through his cropped beard. Heavier in the chest and the belly, but that was hardly surprising after fifteen years. The last time she’d seen him was in the Great Temple of Jerusalem with flaming timbers falling around their ears while they tried to kill each other.
Joseph Ben Mahtityahu.
The man raised his head with a frown, as if the name had echoed through the room. Their eyes met and she saw her own shock mirrored there. They ignored each other for the rest of the meal.
As the banquet broke up, Domitia waved Tabitha across.
‘You have not met Josephus,’ she introduced the man beside her. ‘An exotic in a court of exotics. He was Vespasian’s prisoner, Titus’s pet, and, for some reason that escapes me entirely, he retains my husband’s favour.’
‘Emperor Domitianus treasures me for my wit and charm, as the lady Augusta knows full well,’ Josephus smiled. He bowed. ‘It is an honour to meet a fellow Judaean who has risen high in the Emperor’s favour.’
‘Of course,’ Domitia frowned. ‘I should have introduced you earlier.’
‘Perhaps I could have the pleasure of escorting the lady Tabitha back to her quarters. I long for news of my homeland and we may have acquaintances in common.’
Tabitha allowed Josephus to drape her cloak across her shoulders, though his touch made her flesh creep. Together they walked through the growing dusk towards the wagon lines, accompanied by two of her slave girls who hovered just out of hearing distance.
‘They say it is always the fattest rat that survives, I see that is true.’
“I prefer to think of myself as the most cunning,’ Josephus showed no resentment at the insult.
‘I’m sure the shades of Gamala’s defenders will be pleased to hear it.’ Josephus had been the commander of a Judaean fort besieged by the Romans and the unlikely sole survivor of a garrison who had all agreed to commit suicide. ‘What do you want of me? Is it my silence or my forgiveness?’
‘It is neither,’ Josephus said. ‘Anything you say cannot harm me and your forgiveness means nothing to me.’ He turned to her. ‘The court of Titus Flavius Caesar Domitianus Augustus can be a very dangerous place.’
‘Is that a threat?’
‘It is a statement of fact.’
‘Then what,’ Tabitha demanded.
‘A person cannot have too many friends in this place.’
‘You once stabbed a man who was a friend in the back.’
‘Allies then. ‘Josephus shrugged, not caring to remember the knife he had plunged into Serpentius. ‘We shall be allies.’
‘Why should I ally myself to a man I do not trust?’ Tabitha asked.
Josephus pondered the question for a few moments as they passed through the city gate and walked across the bridge to the causeway that led to the high ground of the wagon park. ‘We have a mutual interest in staying alive. As your husband knows better than most, an Emperor’s favour can be a fickle commodity,’ he looked over his shoulder to check that the servant girls were outwith hearing distance. ‘Shall I tell you a story?’
‘As long as it’s not too dull.’
‘Oh, it’s not dull. Not at all. It concerns a ruler, young and vigorous and loved by his people.’ He glanced at her and she nodded to signify her understanding that they were talking about Titus, Domitian’s brother. ‘Despite being in the prime of his life this ruler inexplicably fell ill, took to his bed and died. Naturally, no-one mourned more vocally than the ruler’s heir, soon to take up the burden of the crown. Yet his first task on mounting the throne was not to create a lasting memorial for his brother or hoist him to the pantheon. No, it was to make a list. A list of those who had grieved, offended, or failed him. It was a long list and it contained some surprising,’ his swarthy features took on a reflective look, ‘not to say perturbing, names.’
‘It must have been a difficult time,’ Tabitha agreed. ‘Yet here we are.’
‘Indeed, here we are. Both of us,’ Josephus said meaningfully. ‘And we owe our presence to the enterprise of a certain lady.’
‘I think I understand ...’
‘No, you must hear the rest. It became clear to those on the list – for the ruler made no secret of its existence or the purpose for which it had been created – that their continued wellbeing depended on the manufacture of a shield to deflect the inevitable blades that were coming their way. Fortunately, one person close to both brothers had been troubled for some time about the elder’s failing health and had made certain inquiries. These inquiries led her to a woman versed in a multitude ways of preparing mushrooms, sadly by then the victim of one of her own concoctions, and a servant who had disappeared in doubtful circumstances. The servant was a Judaean and she invited a gentleman of resource of the same race,’ Josephus nodded modestly to acknowledge Tabitha’s raised eyebrow, ‘to make inquiries into his whereabouts, or, if necessary his fate. It took many weeks and all his resources, but the gentleman not only discovered the boy was still alive, but also his whereabouts.’
‘He must have had an interesting story to tell,’ Tabitha didn’t hide her growing respect. ‘If, of course, he could be persuaded to tell it.’
‘Oh, he did, and in time he did tell it, in great detail and in front of two trusted jurists who took down his every word. Later they created four drafts of the testament on the finest parchment which were passed to powerful men who held prominent places on the list. Respected politicians whose word carried weight and whose story would have outraged a Senate which already hated and mistrusted their new ruler. And not just the Senate, but the people who had loved their former, now deceased, Emperor.’
‘That was well done.’
‘Yes, my mistress is wise, as well as beautiful.’ Josephus chose to drop the pretence. ‘She let it be known that multiple copies of the testament existed and that should there be any unexplained deaths or disappearances one would be presented to the Senate. Naturally, her husband is interested to know the locations of these papers that combine to thwart his will. To my knowledge he has tracked down two of the recipients. You will have noticed a substantial portion of the Senate accompany us?’
‘Surely it is the custom for the Emperor to take his to take his closest advisers on campaign?’
‘It is,’ Josephus agreed, ‘but these are not his closest advisers. They are the men he trusts least and among them, he is certain, are all four holders of the testament. He cannot act until he is certain of the identity of all four, but when he does ...’
‘Our shield falls from our hands.’
‘What do you want from us?’ Tabitha demanded.
The Judaean’s voice became more urgent. ‘It may be that he will still have a use for either Valerius or myself, but it is unlikely both would be spared. If your time comes I will know quickly enough to provide you with fast horses and supplies to reach a place of sanctuary. All I ask is that you prepare the same for me.’
‘How will you know when that time comes?’
‘A certain person will give you adequate warning.’
‘But won’t she be the first person on his list?’
They reached the wagon lines. ‘If that is the case we are all dead anyway.’
Josephus bowed and marched off into the growing darkness.
They reached Oescus on the afternoon of the fourth day and Valerius quickly found an inn close to the port where they could rest. The town was swarming with off-duty legionaries from the Fifth Macedonica which garrisoned the nearby fort and he prayed he didn’t bump into any of his old comrades. Shabolz set off immediately to try to organize passage on a river craft heading east the next morning. Valerius had no doubt Durio would learn of the Pannonian’s inquiries, but there was no helping that. Shabolz returned just before nightfall to report that he’d found places on a trading vessel carrying timber and wine to the port of Tomis on the coast of the Great Sea, a journey that would take twelve and a half days. He carried two large sacks of provisions that should last them the length of the trip and the news that as much wine as they could drink was included in the extortionate price the ship’s owner had negotiated.
Valerius discussed with Tabitha whether they should sell the horses. ‘There’s no knowing when we might need the silver,’ he pointed out. ‘But ...’
Tabitha shook her head. ‘If they find us before the boat sails tomorrow and we have no horses we might as well cut our own throats to save them the trouble of doing it. Better to release them at the wharf.’
Valerius nodded. It had been a long hard day in baking heat through the hill country south of the river and they were all close to exhaustion. Tabitha and the children took the room’s only bed and he and Shabolz lay on the floor in their cloaks. He eased off the leather stock and oiled his stump, leaving a little oil to drip into the intricate mechanism at the heart of the wooden fist. When he was done, he returned the oil to the leather sack and was asleep within seconds.
The sound of a gentle giggle woke him just as dawn broke. He opened an eye to discover Lucius and Olivia crouched beside him gently pulling apart the strings on the leather sack. Tabitha was nowhere in sight and he guessed she must have gone to draw water from the well. The two children were so focussed on their quest that they jumped away from the bag when he raised himself on his good arm.
‘We’re sorry father,’ Lucius blurted. ‘We were just curious. You keep it so close and whatever is in it is so heavy ...’
Olivia huddled behind her brother her dark eyes wide. There was no doubting who was the leader of this escapade. Curious? How could he not have realised? He blamed himself. Shabolz and Tabitha were both aware of the contents of the sack, how did he believe he could keep them a secret from his children in these circumstances.
He smiled. ‘There’s no need to be creeping about. All you had to do was ask. Take a look.’
Lucius picked up the bag and reached inside, reverently removing an object wrapped in softer leather than the outer sack. He laid it on the ground and knelt over it. With Olivia peering over his shoulder he peeled back the leather and they both gasped in wonder at the gleaming wonder they’d revealed. Lucius picked it up in both hands, marvelling at the weight.
‘Is it real gold, father?’
It. The length of a man’s forearm from wingtip to wingtip, its feathered chest puffed out, the raptor’s beak gaped in a scream of defiance. Half as high as it was wide, the hooked claws held a lightning bolt in their grasp.
An Imperial eagle. A legion’s heart and its soul. The symbol of its honour and its vow to the emperor. The eagle of the Fifth Alaudae..
Valerius shook his head. ‘It is coated in gold leaf, but I would guess it was originally forged from bronze.’
‘Is it ours?’
‘It belongs to its legion, but whether that legion still exists I do not know. I intend to return it to a lady whose father once commanded the Fifth Aludae. She will know what to do with it.’
‘The lady Augusta,’ Olivia squealed.
Valerius laughed at his daughter’s insight. How could she have known?
‘Yes, her father was the great general, Gnaeus Domitius Corbulo.’ Corbulo had been like a father to Valerius when they had served together in Armenia. Valerius was at his side when he died, a victim of Nero’s insane jealousy.
‘How did you get it?’ Lucius asked.
‘King Decebalus of the Dacians took it as a trophy when he won a great victory over the legions. I took it from King Decebalus.’
The dull, metallic clang tore Valerius from his revery and his left hand swooped to his sword hilt as he whirled to face the threat. A sailor emptying his slop bucket over the side stared open-mouthed at the scarred warrior in the fighter’s crouch.
‘You didn’t strike me as the nervous type,’ the ship’s master called from his position beside the steering oar. ‘Falco, I’d be a little quieter around our passengers if I was you.’
Valerius ignored the jibe and walked across the deck to where Tabitha and the children sat on straw bales playing a version of the soldier’s game on a board etched into the deck. Shabolz was in the bows lying on a folded sail with his eyes closed and a look of serene contentment on his face. Tabitha looked up as he approached. ‘Are you all right, Valerius?’
‘He just surprised me when he battered that bucket against the side.’ Valerius shrugged off the moment of horror that had overwhelmed him. They were on the sixth day of their journey downriver. Valerius would have expected the children to be fractious by now, but there was a mesmerising quality to the rush of the water beneath the ship’s hull that seemed to calm them as they swept past cliffs and forests, forts and settlements in the sunshine. He guessed they were somewhere close to Durosturum, one of the main fortresses on the frontier. Where possible the steersman had kept close to the southern bank for fear of a sudden hail of Dacian spears if they strayed too close to the northern.
It was the sound. That sound that would live in his memory until the day he died. The metal bucket against the solid timber of the ship’s hull had precisely the same quality as a Dacian falx meeting the iron of a legionary’s helmet. Multiply it a thousand times and then ten times more, and add the shrieks of the wounded, the maimed and the dying, and you had the insane clamour of a battle between outnumbered Roman legionaries and barbarians wielding the most feared weapon the world had yet seen.
Valerius had witnessed the soldiers of Rome fighting and winning against enormous odds from the heather-clad hills of Caledonia to the deserts of Armenia. They won because a legion fought as a single disciplined organism and because they were the best armed and armoured soldiers in the world. Each man’s head was protected by a helmet of metal or brass, his torso by armour made from polished iron plate or linked mail, and he stood behind a stout wooden shield pushed tight against his neighbours until the gladius, his deadly short sword darted in between. A battle against barbarians wasn’t really a battle at all, just butchery.
The Dacians were different, because the Dacians had the falx.
Three feet of curved iron at the end of a two foot shaft, the heavy weapon was shaped like a reaping hook, with an inside edge like a razor, and a needle point. The Dacians wielded them two handed and with enormous strength, giving no thought for their safety as long as they killed their enemy. The point would puncture or, at worst crush, a helmet of the finest quality. Those made of inferior metal could be split in two, along with the head inside. The heavy blade would shear through a shield of oak and kill or wound the man holding it. Valerius, a veteran of more battles than he could count, had seldom seen Roman soldiers suffer wounds like this. Skulls punctured or smashed, faces cut in half, arms and legs sliced off, torsos split open despite the armour that protected them. Even the tightest formation could not hold them back. A Dacian attack was like ten thousand men hewing their way through a forest of flesh.
King Decebalus was no fool. When Domitian arrived in Pannonia with his legions to avenge Sabinus, the Dacians simply melted away before him and slipped back across the river. Valerius, now part of the entourage of Cornelius Fuscus, had watched as the Emperor struck out like a blind man, sending cohorts and sometimes full legions out at the first whisper of the enemy, however unlikely. Domitian’s commanders silently cursed his ineptitude and Fuscus urged caution, but the Emperor ignored them. After a month he became bored with playing hide and seek in the Illyrian mountains and retired to his tented pavilions to concentrate on entertaining his concubines and complaining about his wife.
Valerius helped the new governor to prepare for the advance into the fractured wilds of Dacia. This wouldn’t be the first time he’d crossed the Danuvius. He’d been fortunate to escape with his life twenty years earlier when he’d been lured into an ambush across the river. His knowledge of the first twenty miles int Dacia and the tribesmen who inhabited those lands gave Fuscus an insight into the dangers he faced. With Domitian’s demands for an advance becoming ever more shrill, he concluded that he needed more legions if he was to destroy Decebalus’s capital at Sarmizegetusa, some six days march into the Dacian heartland.
Domitian refused the reinforcements.
The Dacians had burned the wooden bridge at Viminacium when they retreated over the Danuvius so Fuscus ordered the creation of a floating bridge from a hundred and more supply barges and a plank road. Fortunately there had been little Spring rain and the river was slow and sluggish, but it still took two weeks to gather the boats and anchor them in place before the engineers could make the road.
Short-handed or not, one legion had to be left in reserve against a surprise Dacian attack or to exploit a Roman success. Against Valerius’s advice Fuscus decided to leave the Fourth Flavia at Viminacium on the grounds that, as the legion had been based at Singidunum in Moesia, their experiences had left them with too great a respect for the Dacian warriors. Valerius reasoned that a legion that knew the country and the enemy should be at the front where their experience would be of the most use. Fuscus would not be moved and it was the First and Second Adiutrix that crossed the bridge of boats and turned east onto the flat plain that led towards the mountains and Sarmizegetusa.
As always, auxiliaries made up the van of the marching column - a cohort each of Thracian spearmen and archers, lightly armed and ready to deploy into a skirmish line at the first contact with the enemy. On the far flank Valeriuscould see the dust that identified the legion’s cavalry contingent, who would be scouting the open countryand the route ahead. Next came the camp prefect, responsible for march discipline, accompanied by the junior tribunes who weren’t much good for anything but carrying messages. Behind them, the signallers with their curved trumpets.
His heart beat a little faster as the eagle came into sight - the eagle of the First Adiutrix- the golden wings raised and beak open in a scream of defiance. The eagle was a legion’s pride and a legion’s soul, presented personally by the Emperor and every man was oath sworn to protect it. It was borne by the aquilifer, a veteran of twenty year’s service, sweating in the heat beneath his leopard skin, the face a snarling mask over his helmet. Eight men accompanied him, the eagle’s personal guard, the phalerae that proclaimed their valour on their breasts. There was no greater shame for a legion than to lose its eagle.
Behind the eagle marched the men who would protect it and die for it. In the lead came the elite First cohort, led by its standard bearer and composed of eight hundred men, in five double strength centuries of a hundred and sixty men each. These were the legion’s bravest and best troops, the men who could be relied on to break the enemy line, or hold their own under any pressure.
Every man wore a polished iron helmet with a neck protector, cheek guards and a reinforced brow. His torso was protected by lorica segmentata armour, a complex arrangement of case hardened iron bands that covered the chest, shoulders and back. He carried a pair of pila, weighted spears designed to punch through shields and light armour, and on his hip he wore a twenty-two inch gladius,the short sword that had almost literally carved out the Roman empire. On his back, he bore the brightly painted scutum, the big shield that he cursed on the march for its weight, but that would save his life in the battle line. It was prone to chafe the shoulders, back and legs, but it was the work of a moment to unsling it and face the enemy ready for battle. They were short, wiry men, with uncouth habits and a soldier’s tendency to complain, but, theFifth, those dozy bastards, notwithstanding, they knew that if they maintained their discipline they were invincible.
Behind them by the thousand came the mules of the supply train; no ox carts on this campaign because no roads existed where were going, only precipitous mountain passes and boulder-filled valley bottoms that would snap an axle as if it was a toothpick. The mules were followed by more auxiliaries. Frisians and Tungrians, Vangiones and Nervians from the swamps of Germania, Gauls from every part of that vast land, and lithe, tanned hillmen, blood brothers to Shabolz, from Pannonia and Moetia and Dalmatia.
Sixteen thousand men marched into Dacia with Cornelius Fuscus. It was a magnificent sight, but that magnificence and the confidence it inspired faded as they entered the mountains.
‘We’re too strung out,’ Valerius told Fuscus. The mountainvalleys were deep, with precipitous tree-lined slopes that it was near impossible to patrol effectively. Hidden gullies might conceal a hundred Dacian warriors. An entire army couldhide among the tops. The valley bottoms were narrow and constricted further by rivers and streams with no room for the cohorts to deploy. ‘We should find another way toSarmizegetusa.’
Fuscus wiped his brow, he was not built for campaigning in the heat. ‘No,’ he said, though Valerius could see he was equally concerned. ‘The Emperor seeks a quick victory and our spies say this is the fastest route to the Dacian king. It would take a week to prise us out of here and another three to march round the mountains.’
Valerius’s premonition of looming disaster increased with every mile they marched.