I STUMBLED on this interview I did on my approach to writing battle scenes for the Historical Novel Society a few years back, and I thought it was worth reviving. Hope you enjoy!
Tuesday, 11 May 2021
Saturday, 18 April 2020
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’t his country. 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 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 Trapezus. From Trapezus 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.’
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.
They were approaching the end of a narrow valley when it happened. What had been open ground where the vale opened out and rose towards the next pass suddenly became a wall of Dacian warriors who had somehow evaded the lead scouts. Bugles blared as Fuscus immediately issued orders for the lead cohorts to move from column into line ready to attack.
Valerius felt a thrill of fear that had nothing to do with the Dacians in front of him. He had been in this position before, at the battle of the Cepha gap when Gnaeus Domitius Corbulo had faced Vologases, the Parthian King of Kings, and his Invincibles. But then it had been Corbulo who was the stopper in the wine skin. He looked over his shoulder to the rear where the legionary column stretched away to the end of the narrow, tree-lined valley and far beyond. The rear guard of the Second Adiutrix must be four or five miles away and entirely out of contact with the expedition’s commander. All around him soldiers were changing position, crammed closely together by the terrain and getting in each other’s way. It was taking an age to reform the legion and every passing second added to the confusion.
And this was the widest part of the valley. They’d entered through a narrow gorge that was now perhaps a mile behind them. Between Valerius and the gorge stood six cohorts of the First Adiutrix, perhaps three thousand of Rome’s finest troops. But the nature of the terrain mean only the first cohort was likely to be contact with the enemy. Decebalus had chosen his defensive position well.
Even as the thought formed Decebalus proved that defence was the last thing on his mind. From the far end of the valley came cries of alarm and fear accompanied by a tearing crash as a dozen large trees fell simultaneously to crush the rearmost troops and block the gorge.
Fuscus looked to Valerius with an expressionof incomprehension on his plump features. ‘What’s happening?’
An image formed in Valerius’s mind. Mars save us! It can’t be. ‘Look to your flanks,’ he shouted. ‘Signaller ...’
But it was already too late. From the heights and trees around them swarms of falx-wielding Dacian warriors poured down towards the disorganized Roman formation. Valerius’s heart froze. He had read about the annihilation of Varus’s legions in Germania and he knew what came next. Yet there was one last thing he could do.
‘Get the eagle out,’ he called to Fuscus. ‘Use the couriers.’ Every Roman legion contained a mounted detachment of a hundred and twenty cavalry who acted as scouts and couriers. A dozen of them were milling around Fuscus waiting for orders.
Fuscus shook his head. ‘No ...’
Valerius took him by the arm with his left hand. ‘We’re finished Cornelius. But you can still save yourself and the eagle. Rome has already lost an eagle and a governor to the Dacians don’t present them with a second.’
‘The eagle can go,’ Fuscus’s voice shook. ‘But I stay with my men.’
‘Aquila to me,’ Valerius roared. ‘Couriers at the ready.’
The standard bearer ran up, his face shining with sweat beneath the leopard’s mask and surrounded by his guard. Valerius dismounted and handed the astonished soldierthe reins. ‘Marcus Aquila. Your duty is to save the eagle.’ Aquila opened his mouth. ‘No,’ Valerius had to shout above the growing din all around him as falxes clattered into helmets and armour and shields. ‘No protests and no foolish sacrifice. Go with these riders. Thehorses will carry you over the slope by the gorge. Hurry.’
The Aquila growled a curse, but one of his guards held the eagle as he vaulted into the saddle. ‘Go well my friends.’ He galloped off at the heart of the cloud of cavalrymen as they carved their way through the confusion towards the end of the valley.
Meanwhile the First Adiutrix was dying on its feet around them. Ten thousand warriors had fallen from the heights and the falxes were carving the column into smaller pieces. The legionaries were brave, they fought well and died hard, but they still died. Died screaming and gutted, or silently like pole-axed cattle, or staring in disbelief as blood spurted from severed arms or legs. The First’s legate and his officers did what they could to rally their soldiers and form some kind of defensive line, but the Dacian charge had smashed in the column’s flanks and they could not control a thousand individual fights.
Fuscus stood at the centre of his bodyguard of Praetorians and stared at the carnage around him.
‘What can we do? Will the other cohorts come to our support?’
Valerius shook his head. He had a feeling that the rear cohorts were most likely fighting for their own lives. ‘All we can do is save our honour.’ He looked ahead to where the Dacian line had stood at the head of the valley. Over a wall of plunging falx blades he saw a single warrior standing on a raised mound surrounded by lavishly dressed courtiers and waving standards.
The Dacian king.
The Dacian king.
‘Cornelius,’ Valerius pointed to the mound. ‘There is still something to be salvaged from this. If we can kill King Decebalus this defeat will be forgotten and your name will be remembered alongside Paulinus, the saviour of Britannia, and Corbulo, scourge of the Parthians.’
“But how?’ Fuscus demanded. ‘He is beyond our reach.’
‘Centurion?’ Valerius called to the commander of Fuscus’s bodyguard, two hundred strong and every man a veteran. ‘Order your men to form century wedge around us.’
It had come to him with the name Paulinus. Suetonius Paulinus had defeated the Iceni rebel Boudicca using just this tactic. Valerius had watched the Roman wedges carve deep into the centre of the rebel army and destroy their cohesion. That day it had been the catalyst for victory. Today the salvation of Fuscus’s honour must suffice.The centurion ordered his men into sections of twenty, every man with his gladius drawn and his shield at the ready, forming compact units five wide and four deep. One unit created the tip of the arrow-shaped wedge, with two more behind. Valerius and Fuscus added themselves to the centre of the third row, and four more sections formed up behind them, the reserves who would flow forward as the formations in front were depleted.
‘Ready,’ the centurion called.
‘For Rome,’ Valerius shouted, and his cry was echoed by every man in the formation. ‘Our mark is the mound directly ahead. An extra ration of wine for the man who bring me King Decebalus’s head.’ They laughed at that. Dead men walking and they knew it, but they still laughed. ‘Wedge will advance at the trot.’
Four hundred paces. That was all it would take. And the first hundred were within their own lines. Then they would have to fight their way through a thousand Dacian warriors, hack down the king’s bodyguard and take their swords to him.
‘Make way. Make way, damn you.’ The centurion had placed himself in the centre of the point section of the arrowhead and he roared at the bewildered soldiers who stood in his way waiting for the Dacian falxes to reach them. Legionaries in the first rank of the wedge used their shields to hammer their comrades aside. Ahead of them the survivors of the first cohort continued to fight off attacks on their front and flanks. The valley had been narrow before, but the battlefield was narrower still and men packed close together naturally slowed the wedge’s advance. ‘Make way you bastards or your own comrades will cut you down.’
The normal purpose of the wedge was to punch a hole through the enemy’s line. The soldiers of the first section would pierce the Dacian defences at whatever cost, the second and third sections would burst through and expand the breach so that all ten sections could then attack the enemy in the flank and rear. This was different. Valerius had designed his attack with the sole purpose of getting a single Roman soldier within sword’s length of the Dacian king.
A sudden lurch and a crash of shields from only a few paces to the front told Valerius that they’d reached the Dacian line, and a scream of mortal agony confirmed it. He was almost deafened by what sounded like axes hewing wood, but that he knew was the falx chopping into the shields of the men ahead. A new voice took up the task of encouraging the wedge forward. Dacian warriors roared and grunted with the effort of wielding their heavy half-moons of iron. The sharper clang of metal upon metal now and the shrieks of dying men almost constant. Valerius could almost sense the wedge fading away around him. At his side Fuscus, exhausted, and muttering a string of obscenities, fell to his knees and was swallowed up by the sections behind. The pace quickened and in that moment his heart thundered. They were through. He could see daylight on either side where there had been living, breathing soldier, and still the survivors of the wedge were fighting and dying for every yard. A big Dacian warrior appeared in front of him where there should have been a Roman back. The man raised his falx to strike, but Valerius managed to get his shield under the blow and ram it into the snarling face. As the Dacian fell away, Valerius looked up to see the mound less than a dozen paces ahead, Decebalus, the Dacian king at the centre of his courtiers. He threw the shield aside and sprinted towards the salvation of Rome’s honour, the sword firm in his left hand. Six paces. A shouted order. His feet skidded from under him and he fell with the blades outstretched, the tip a finger's length from Decebalus’s feet. A shadow fell over him and something hammered into his helmet with enormous force.
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.
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.
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.’