FLIGHT OF THE EAGLE
In the dream, Fuscus spoke to him, but not the Fuscus he had known, fat and jovial and with a wit as sharp as the point of a gladius. This Fuscus had flesh the colour of week old ashes and his pale lips were drawn back from teeth bared in a snarl, or more likely a grimace of agony. Valerius held Fuscus’s severed head in his hand. He knew he was dreaming, but the weight of the head was comfortingly familiar, because this was not the first time he had carried the late governor of Moesia’s skull. His memory drifted idly to another dreamlike day, his feet tethered beneath the belly of a Dacian pony and his fingers twisted in the dark curls of which Fuscus had been so proud. The warriors of King Decebalus’s bodyguard had laughed as they passed among the rotting, naked corpses carpeting the field of sorrow at Tapae, all that remained of the mighty Fifth Legion Alaudae. Cornelius Fuscus had led them, under protest, at the direct command of his Emperor, to ambush and defeat beyond the Danuvius, and, dishonoured by the loss of the legion’s eagle, fought to the last when he could have fled. Gaius Valerius Verrens had fought at his side.
For a few moments he struggled to understand what Fuscus was trying to tell him. The mangled lips moved, but the sound was faint as a distant whisper and the words blurred together. He might have been talking a different language and not the polished, aristocratic Latin of a former Prefect of the Praetorian Guard.
Then, as if a curtain had been drawn back, it came to him. ‘Flee, Valerius,’ the gaping mouth screamed. ‘Flee for your life and that of your family. His is a hatred that will never die. He will never stop hounding you.’
Titus Flavius Caesar Domitianus Augustus. Emperor of Rome. Master and God. Pontifex Maximus. Murderer. Torturer. Betrayer. Enemy unto death.
‘Lord?’ The dream faded to be replaced by a moment of confusion. A callused hand shook his shoulder. ‘Lord, we must be moving at dawn. They cannot be far behind.’
He opened his eyes to find a shadowy figure stooped over him silhouetted by stars that glittered sharply in the inky sky. Other shadows bustled around the tethered horses down by the stream. A little dell surrounded by trees, he remembered, reached by rocky ground and far enough from the road to feel secure. No fire, of course, the flames would invite a spear between the shoulders. With a jolt of fear he realised something was missing.
‘The lady is preparing our food lord.’ The voice took on a disapproving tone.
‘At least she won’t poison us, Shabolz. Unlike one of your stews.’
His words brought a bark of laughter from Shabolz, the man who had carried him from the field of Mons Graupius when Gnaeus Julius Agricola would have left him for dead. The man who had vowed to serve him unto death. They’d been on cold rations for a week or more and would break their fast with stale bread, hard cheese and perhaps a few dried out olives. Tall and slim with close-cropped sandy hair, serious gray eyes and handsome regular features, the Pannonian cavalryman had barely changed since the day they’d met at Valerius’s villa outside Rome seven years earlier. A warrior born to the saddle, he was all that was left of Valerius’s bodyguard. Shabolz walked off chuckling and Valerius’s spirits rose. For all their peril he could not have been favoured with better companions.
Valerius drew back his blanket and pushed himself to his feet, grunting with the ache of half a dozen old wounds. His back felt as if he’d lain on a bed of knives and his twisted left leg shook when he put his weight on it. A stiff cowhide stock over his forearm held in position the oak fist that replaced the right hand he’d lost so long ago in Britannia. In normal times he would have removed it to sleep, but these were not normal times. He untied the laces with the practised fingers of his left hand and pulled the stock free of the arm. From a leather sack at his side he retrieved a clay bottle and uncorked it with his teeth to pour a little of the oil inside on the chafed flesh of his stump. After replacing cork and bottle he massaged the oil into his flesh, resisting the impulse to groan with the pleasure of it. When it was done he slipped the socket back in place and redid the laces.
Another, less bulky figure appeared from the darkness and he didn’t require the gift of sight to be aware of the presence of his wife.
‘You should have woken me earlier,’ he said as Tabitha thrust a crust of bread into his hand and bent to buckle a long cavalry sword to his belt. ‘And Shabolz thinks it’s not fitting that a princess of Emesa should have to work like a common serving girl.’
‘Shabolz stayed awake on guard all night.’ It wasn’t news. The Pannonian had kept watch every night since they’d been forced to flee Viminacium, sleeping in the saddle during the day to maintain his strength. ‘There,’ she completed her task. ‘You old men need your sleep,’ she continued. ‘Or you become irritable.’
‘Old?’ His mock outrage made her smile, as it always did. ‘If you’d still been under the blanket when I woke I’d have showed you ...’
‘Hush,’ she put a finger to his lips. ‘The children are close.’
They stood together, basking in the comfort of each other’s presence, passing the crust between them and taking alternate sips of icy river water from a brass cup. In the pre-dawn silence Valerius could hear Lucius preparing the horses for the day and showing his sister how to secure the various straps and buckles. The boy was at the stage where he seemed to grow a few inches every week. At the age of twelve his head already reached to his father’s shoulder. A good boy, gentle and kind, perhaps too gentle for his own good, but with a keen intelligence and quick mind that undoubtedly came from his mother. Olivia, five years younger, and with Tabitha’s golden skin and raven hair, had a mercurial quality that kept her constantly on the move, and an insatiable curiosity about her surroundings that Shabolz cheerfully satisfied. He heard her yelp of delight as the Pannonian went to help them with the saddles. Six horses, four saddled and two spares that also carried their provisions, what little they had left.
The sun rose in the trees behind Valerius and the dappled light fell on Tabitha’s face. Her slim figure hidden beneath a baggy peasant’s tunic and green braccae, she was as beautiful as she had been on the day he had saved her life on the road to Apamea. True, tiny lines etched the skin at the corners of her eyes and her dark hair was shot with silver. But old? They didn’t feel old or, when the opportunity arose, act it either, but they were certainly getting older. Valerius was close to fifty now, and his once dark hair was almost white. Yet, his wounds apart, he was still vigorous and his mind remained as sharp as it had ever been. It needed to be.
Their eyes met and he knew Tabitha’s thoughts precisely mirrored his own.
They would probably have been dead already if it hadn’t been for Shabolz’s skills and knowledge of the country. It wasn’thiscountry. Pannonia lay far to the west behind them. He’d somehow kept them on a course parallel with the Via Militaris, the road that carried official traffic between Singidum and far off Byzantium. As far as Valerius could tell they were somewhere in the east of Moesia, perhaps even in Thrace, two day’s ride or more south of the mighty Danuvius river. A land of towering, precipitous mountains where eagles soared on the breeze, deep above shadowed tree-lined gorges filled with tumbling streams and sometimes impassable rivers. Yet Shabolz always seemed to know when a river valley would have a potential escape route instead of a dead end. He never hesitated when they came to a fork in the forest track and he understood the ways of the animals and birds and every subtlety of their alarm signals. A jay’s cry was different if it had been disturbed by a weasel or a badger. A fox gave a different bark if a bear or a wolf was close. Each of them had a specific cry for man.
Those skills had never been more vital than in the forest. Four days earlier the Pannonian had sensed some presence in their wake. He’d waited until they’d reached an area where they could dismount and lead their horses up a rock incline away from the track and into hiding in the forest above. Twenty minutes later Valerius watched from a crag as a well-armed column of twenty men in black cloaks passed on the track below, so close he could hear the sound of their mounts’ hooves. They had a wariness and a sense of purpose that Valerius understood all too well. Not soldiers, hired killers. When their leader turned to scan his surroundings with flat, dead eyes, Valerius had recognized the pale features with a shiver of dread. Claudius Durio, Domitian’s most feared torturer and assassin. He’d vowed there and then that Tabitha, Lucius and Olivia would never be allowed to fall into Durio’s hands.
The ruse that had taken them to the crag, and the diversion that followed, bought them time and space, but both were now running out. At the start of each day a decision must be made.
As the children finished preparing the horses, Valerius, Tabitha and Shabolz crouched over a patch of dry earth. Valerius drew a dagger from his belt and scratched three lines in the dirt. ‘North, south or do we continue due east?’
‘East,’ Tabitha said firmly. ‘We agreed that only in Emesa will we be safe.’ Emesa was the Syrian city where she had been brought up. They would be under the protection of her uncle, the king. ‘Whatever we do to put them off our scent we must always move east.’ She saw the doubt on Shabolz’s face. ‘We can make a feint to north or south once we are on the move. They’ll be expecting a change of direction. We can use that to our advantage.’
‘The only reason for going north is to take ship on the Danuvius. If we do it, we have to be certain of a boat. That means a big town, Oescus or Novae. They’re busy ports, places where tongues wag. We will only have one chance. No boat and we risk being trapped against the river and taken.’
‘We’d also have to sell the horses,’ Valerius said thoughtfully ‘But if we can reach the river, we can be on the Great Sea within days instead of weeks. The Great Sea will carry us to Trezibond. From Trezibond it is only a three day ride to the Euphrates Valley and the Euphrates will carry us as far south as Zeugma. From Zeugma I can lead us to Antioch blindfolded,’ he smiled at Tabitha. ‘And from Antioch you will guide us home.’
‘Not south, lord?’ Shabolz wondered.
If they turned south they could reach the Mare Adriaticum in less than a week, perhaps at Phillipi, where they could take ship directly to Syria. But the man who wanted them dead would know that too. The authorities at every port on the coast between Thesssalonica and Neapolis had likely already been alerted.
‘No,’ Valerius decided. ‘That would make it easy for them. Tabitha is right. We will continue east for the moment.’
Olivia – a miniature replica of her mother in tunic and braccae - and Lucius were already in the saddle, holding the reins of the remaining horses. Before he mounted, Valerius secured the leather sack to his saddle pommel. The misshapen object inside made it awkward and he wondered, as he did each morning, whether it would be better to throw it in the nearest river or bury it deep where it would never be found.
It took two months after the battle at Mons Graupius for Valerius’s injuries to recover sufficiently for him to resume his duties aslegatus iuridicus at the governor’s palace in Londinium, though his shattered leg had never properly healed. Julius Agricola, whom Valerius suspected of sacrificing Valerius and his group of trusted bodyguards and friends, stayed in the north hunting down bands of rebel Celts, obsessed by Calgacus, the mighty Caledonian war chief whose body had never been found.
Though outwardly their lives returned to normal, Valerius and Tabitha were never able to relax. Emperor Domitian, though he basked in the glory of Agricola’s victory, had more than one reason to wish Gaius Valerius Verrens dead, and Domitian was a vengeful man. Every meal, however carefully prepared, might contain the potential for a painful death. Every dark passage could conceal the glint of an assassin’s knife. Valerius had finally allowed himself to believe they might yet survive when the news came. They were ordered to Rome immediately.
Run? What chance would they have when he was certain Domitian and Agricola were watching their every movement? No, they had no option but to return. Logic dictated that even a man as twisted as Domitian must have a reason for wishing to look Valerius in the eye. In that reason he might find some sort of salvation. Another cause for hope lay in Valerius’s friendship with the Emperor’s wife, Domitia Augusta. In her most recent communication Domitia had hinted that she held some power over her husband, and as long as that should be the case Valerius had nothing to fear. Valerius suspected her influence had something to do with the sudden and unexplained death of the Emperor’s predecessor, his brother, Valerius’s friend Titus.
An anxious three week journey, each day mired in doubt and the children never allowed even an arm’s length away. By sea to Gesoriacum, a fast galley through Gaul on the Sequanna, overland to the Rhodanus, the port of Massilia and another ship across the Mare Nostrum to the capital. And confusion.
Not a death sentence, as it turned out, but a welcome. Summoned to Domitian’s palace on the Palatine Hill, Valerius entered a court bustling with preparations for war. A Dacian army had swarmed across the Danuvius frontier and attacked the province of Moesia. Sabinus, governor of the beleaguered province, had been butchered and his legions defeated by the barbarians.
‘The emperor praises your valour and your achievements in war,’ Domitian’s freedman Lucianus told him. ‘He wishes you to act as military adviser to the Praetorian Prefect Cornelius Fuscus when he pushes the Dacians back beyond the Danuvius. The Emperor himself will command the first stage of the campaign and it is his desire that your wife accompany you as companion to the Augusta. You will have all the honours and facilities that accompany your current rank.’
Fuscus would lead a force of three legions, First and Second Adiutrix and Fourth Flavia. Their commanders quickly accepted Valerius as one of their own, but Tabitha summed up their position best.
‘If he cannot kill you,’ she whispered as they walked along a marbled corridor to the quarters they’d been allocated, ‘he wants you close enough to touch, for when the time comes. And it will come. He will try to lull us with soothing words, but we have never been in greater danger.’
‘We have to find fodder for the horses,’ Shabolz pointed out the blindingly obvious. Sweat ran down his face in the midday heat and he took a sip from his waterskin. ‘We riders can get by on the little we have, but they need full bellies, especially if we have to run.’
Valerius swatted vainly at the cloud of flies that buzzed around his face and over his mount’s bobbing head. They’d rationedthe hay they’d gathered in the rush to flee Viminacium as long as they could. Now there as no avoiding it. After days of keeping torough cattle tracks far from the main road signs of habitation were few and far between, but Valerius had no doubt Shabolz would be able to find a farm or a charcoal burner’s camp relatively close by.‘When we reach the next farmstead you can go and barter for what we need,’ he held out a few silver pieces.
‘You don’t know these people, lord.’Shabolz laughed. ‘They’re wolves down here. Like as not they’d take the silver, steal the horse, cut my throat and feed me to their pigs. Waste not, want not, is their way. They trust no-one. It’s not so long ago that the Dacians burned and butchered their way through this valley. The farms will only just be recovering and the farmers will be keeping what they have, just in case.’
‘So it has to be a town?’
‘I doubt we can avoid it, lord.’
‘Then it must be Trimontium.’ Trimontium, the place of the three hills, was the next substantial settlementon their route, an important trading place.Valerius had hoped to avoid the centre of the city, but there was no helping it. Once they reached Trimontium hewould finally have to take the decision he’d been avoiding. ‘How far do you think?’
Shabolz shrugged. ‘We could be there before nightfall, but best we arrive when they’re still waking up. We can be in and out of the city before anyone realizes we were there.’
They camped for the night within sight of the torches on Trimontium’s walls. Farmers began queuing at the gates in the loom of the highest of the city’s three hills well before first light. As dawn broke Valerius and his companions slipped slipped in amongst the carts taking their produce to market.He’d hoped to find some trader withfodder to sell and save them entering, but he hoped in vain. Instead, Shabolz bartered for a squealing suckling pig on a rope that would help them blend in with the crowd.
Valerius led the waythrough the central arch of the gateway without incident and they found themselves ina street that was already crowded. Trimontium was a typically Roman city, laid out on an orderly grid system, with soaring three storey apartment buildings that blocked out the light and open-fronted shops at ground level. At this time of day the shopkeepers were laying out their wares on wooden tables. Bolts of cloth in a dozen different colours, jugs, bowls and pots, leather shoes and jerkins, amphorae of wine stacked against walls. Already the scent of simmering stews and freshly baked bread hung in the air, tantalising the nostrils and reminding Valerius that it wasn’t only the horses that needed resupply. Yet look a little closer and itwasn’t really Roman at all. The people who thronged the streets even at this early hour were dressed in tunics and dresses that would look more at home in the east. To a tutored eye, like Tabitha’s, the detail of the buildings was recognizably Hellenic, which wasn’t surprising, because not so long ago Trimontium had been Philippopolis. Theinhabitantsstill considered themselves Greek and conversed among themselves in a language that was more Greek than Latin.
They led their horses at a walk, with Shabolz and Valerius in the lead and Tabitha following with the children. The squealing suckling pig dug in its heels in on the cobbles and Lucius had to pick up the squirming animal and tuck it under his arm.
‘We need to find a stables,’ Valerius said.
‘Then we should look for an inn,’ Tabitha called. ‘And the best place to find an inn is close to the forum.’
The street they were on proved to be the Decumanus Maximus, one of the city’s two main thoroughfares, which meant it would lead directly to the forum. They pushed their way through the growing throng until they reached a broad open space surrounded by a colonnaded walkway on three sides and dominated by a complex of massive public buildings to the north.
Morestreetsled from the paved forum and on one of them Valerius spotted the sign for an inn, which fortunatelyproved to have an ostler’s yard attached. They tied the horses to a rail and allowed the animalsto drink from a trough while Shabolz strode off to negotiate with the owner for a dozen bags of hay. In the meantime, Tabitha went in search of food while Valerius watched the horses from a corner of the courtyard and the children played nearby, taking turns at chasing thebemusedpiglet.
His attention was so focussed on their antics it never occurred to him that they might be being watched.
Two men stared out from the shaded entrance to an alley on the other side of the street from the ostler’s yard where they’d spent many bored hours since receiving their orders two days earlier. One older, with a bald head and a cast to his right eye, the other, an almost girlishly handsome young man with dark hair, they’d been told to look out for a specific group. Two men, a woman and two children, a boy and a girl. Every inn and stables in the centre of Trimontium was being similarly observed, because their leader believed his quarry must pass through this busy crossroads city and they would take the opportunity to rest their horses and replenish their supplies. Only one more vital detail was needed to prove them correct.
As the day warmed, Valerius pushed his cloak back from his shoulders and allowed it to fall on the stone wall of the trough beside him. The younger man, whose sharp eyesight had given him the name The Hawk, whispered to the older with an authority that would have surprised anyone who didn’t know him and the bald man nodded and slipped away silently up the alley. The Hawk felt his excitement grow as he watched the children play. His commander had offered a reward for the hunter who first identified his prey, and he’d already decided what that reward would be. His pretty features hid a pitiless depravity that sickened even the most merciless of his comrades. The handsome woman who’d accompanied the children had excited him and it excited him more to picture the entertainment she would provide when she fell into his hands. It was amazing what tricks even the bravest of women could be persuaded to perform when her daughter was chained naked to the wall with a glowing brazier and a pair of red hot shears in front of her. The possibilities were endless, and the young man had an unlimited imagination. He smiled and continued his surveillance. Not long now. As long as they didn’t move on too soon.
‘That’s enough play for the moment,’ Valerius warned his children.
Lucius had the piglet on its rope as he ran around the stable yard pursued by Olivia, but as he neared the open gate for the last time, the little animal slipped the noose and ran for freedom, with Olivia in its wake.
‘No,’ Valerius shouted as she ran into the roadway.
But in her excitement Olivia was beyond hearing.
The piglet darted this way and that, suddenly seeing its opportunity in the darkened opening opposite the gate. Olivia instinctively gave chase. As she entered the alley she was halted abruptly by a hand that darted out and took her by the shoulder. Before she could cry out, she was spun round to face her father and she froze at the sting of a blade at her neck.
‘Don’t struggle, girl,’ an almost gentle voice instructed, ‘or you’ll cut your own throat.’
The Hawk stepped into the sunlight at the alley’s entrance. Two or three people passing nearby gaped in astonishment and fear at the sight of the knife at the girl’s throat. ‘This is Imperial business,’ he snapped. ‘Anyone who interferes will regret it. You,’ he called to Valerius as the street cleared, ‘stay where you are, and the boy.’
‘Don’t move, Lucius,’ Valerius ordered.
‘Father,’ Olivia cried.
‘Shut it, girl.’ The voice was no longer gentle.
‘Stay quiet, Olivia.' Fear, desperation and helplessness made Valerius's voice as brittle as an old man's. 'Don’t hurt her, please.’
‘Nobody’s getting hurt as long as you stay just where you are,’ the young man smiled. ‘But if you or the boy moves, I’ll cut her. I’m not sure whether to take her nose,’ the knife flickered upwards and Olivia let out a squeal, ‘or one of her eyes. Don’t make me decide which.’
‘Nobody will move,’ Valerius assured him. ‘What is this all about?’
‘I think you know that already, friend. Someone important wants to have words with the one-handed man and is willing to pay handsomely for it. A few of my friends will be along soon to make sure it happens.’
‘Then you only need me,’ Valerius tried to keep his tone conversational. He needed to make sure the man holding the blade at Olivia’s throat stayed calm. ‘I wont give you any trouble. The children are of no use to you. You can just let them go.’
‘I might have other ideas,’ The Hawk grinned.
From the corner of his eye and just out of the knife man’s vision, Valerius could see Tabitha edging cautiously along the front wall of the adjoining building.
One part of Valerius’s mind screamed at his wife to go back before she killed Olivia and herself, while the other applauded her courage and ingenuity as he stood helpless and frozen to the spot. He looked at the knife man for some sign of insecurity, but the youth appeared entirely in control. Why should he not with the empty alley at his back and his flanks partially covered by the walls on either side?
Inch by precarious inch, Tabitha eased herself along the stuccoed wall, a look of the utmost concentration on her face, though her wide eyes reflected her terror for Olivia and her burning hatred for the man who held her. A leopardess intent on protecting her brood. But a leopardess without claws, for she was completely unarmed.
‘I think there has been some kind of mistake.’ All Valerius could do was fight to keep the attention of Olivia’s abductor.
‘You’re the one who made the mistake when you annoyed our powerful friend,’ the accompanying smile was as steady as the blade at Olivia’s throat. ‘You’ll have plenty of time to think about that while you’re being transported back to Rome in a stinking cage. Meantime I’ll be entertaining your family, in a manner of speaking. I have quite broad tastes. I don’t mind where it goes. I’m particularly looking forward to your wife. Shouldn’t she be back by now? She’s missing all the fun.’
Valerius bit the inside of his lip to stop himself glancing to his right, so hard his mouth filled with the metallic taste of blood. Tabitha was less than three short paces from her quarry, her back pressed hard against the wall. What would she do? What could she do without a weapon? She’d go for the knife hand, but all it would take was one stroke and Olivia would be gone. Valerius had seen it before. The look of astonishment, the sheet of red, and the obscene gurgle of someone drowning in their own blood. He tensed. Somehow he had to distract the knife man. But how? No chance of a mad rush with a fence between them. He tried to remember if there was something close he could throw. His pack. That was it. It had enough weight to stun a man. But where was it? He had to pick it up and launch it in a single movement. He allowed his left hand to drift down towards the bench. Tabitha inched ever closer and his mind screamed with despair. He was going to lose them both.
‘Don’t think you ...’
The Hawk’s words were punctuated by a meaty crack and his head jerked back. A short feathered shaft appeared between his eyes and, with a sharp squeal not unlike the fugitive piglet, he toppled backwards taking Olivia with him. Lucius let out a cry of terror. Tabitha darted round the corner of the alley and stared at the fallen bodies. Valerius ran across the road to where Olivia lay with her eyes screwed shut and the knife edge still tight against her throat.
Slowly she relaxed and the eyes opened one at a time. ‘Am I still alive, father?’
Valerius bent and gently removed the hand with the knife and Tabitha stooped to take her daughter in her arms.
‘Amateurs,’ Valerius turned to where Shabolz was vaulting the fence. ‘They never learn when to keep their mouth shut.’ The auxiliary put his booted foot against dead man’s throat and grunted as he pulled the little weighted Pannonian throwing dart from his skull. ‘It’s time we were moving, and you,’ he turned to Lucius, ‘will have to find us supper. I was looking forward to that pig.’
They headed north out of the city as soon as the horses were loaded with the supplies Tabitha and Shabolz had bought, crossing the bridge and taking the Via Claudia, the road through the mountains to the Danuvius. Normally, Valerius would have avoided the main road, but now, as he explained to Tabitha, his fear of Durio and his men reaching Oescus ahead of them meant the necessity for speed outweighed that for stealth.
‘We’ll only truly be safe when we are on the ship taking us to the Great Sea,' he said. 'Durio will be hunting us, but he can’t be sure we haven’t continued on the Via Militaris heading for Byzantium, or even turned south towards Greece.’
Shabolz dropped back to cover their rear. Whatever his final decision it was clear the Emperor’s assassin would send fast riders to check if they’d used the northern road. Sure enough, an hour into their journey, the Pannonian’s sharp whistle gave them warning to get off the road into hiding in a stand of trees while two riders galloped past.
‘What happens if they come back?’ Lucius asked.
‘Hopefully the same trick will work again,’ Shabolz said as he rode past to take the lead. ‘If it doesn’t we’ll think of something.’
Tabitha rode with Olivia close on one side and Lucius on the other. Her head still reeled from the shock of what had happened only a few hours earlier and she wanted them close. She’d had no idea what she was going to do when she reached the man with the knife. It made her nauseous to think what might have happened to Olivia if Shabolz hadn’t been so certain of his ability with the throwing dart.
‘Mama, do you ever wish we were back with the lady Augusta?’
Despite her troubled thoughts Tabitha managed a smile. The memories came tumbling back of the weeks and months they’d spent at the beating heart of the Empire in the company of a woman Valerius, by his own admission, had once loved, and her all-powerful husband who would have killed them all without the slightest qualm.
‘I miss the soft beds and rich food,’ she admitted. Domitian had travelled from Rome to Moesia at the head of the Empire’s entire apparatus of state, protected by his Praetorian Guard and a full legion. The never ending column had eaten and drunk its way up the length of Italia and crawled sedately across the broad plains of Pannonia and Dalmatia like a giant caterpillar, leaving a swathe of empty storehouses and dismayed landowners twenty miles wide behind it. Naturally, the Emperor’s palace household took pride of place at the head, preceded only by two cohorts of infantry and surrounded by a screen of cavalry close enough to act quickly but far enough away so the Imperial party didn’t have to eat their dust. Valerius and Tabitha were allocated a luxuriously appointed sprung wagon a few places behind that of Domitia Augusta, but Valerius preferred to travel with Shabolz and the men of his bodyguard who had accompanied him from Britannia. Tabitha spent most of her time with Lucius and Olivia, trying to keep them occupied, but she dined often with Domitia, sometimes alone, but mostly with the ladies of the court.
Domitia must have been close to forty, but with a dark, ageless beauty and a carriage and an authority that was a testament to her noble status. At first Tabitha had considered the Augusta haughty. She’d been prepared to dislike her, particularly given her past attachment to Valerius, but gradually she realized Domitian’s wife spent much of her time preoccupied and tense. She never knew when she might receive a summons from her husband, or what that summons might entail. Domitia in her turn made it plain she enjoyed Tabitha’s company and conversation, but preferred that they did not become close. Only once, when they were alone, did she unburden herself.
She summoned Tabitha when the dishes had been cleared after dinner and said very softly. ‘It is not in your interests to appear to be in my favour, nor in mine to be too friendly with you, but know this Tabitha, I have a fondness for you, and an obligation – only an obligation, I assure you – to your husband.’