Authors: S. J. A. Turney
Tags: #Historical, #Fiction, #Rome, #Fantasy, #Generals
By S. J. A. Turney
I would like to dedicate this book to my parents,
who are largely responsible for who I am today.
Also to Bren and Sue, one of whom was my first
reader and has been incredibly supportive, and the
other is in it.
I’ll leave you to work out which is which…
Published in 2009 by YouWriteOn.com
S J A Turney
The author asserts the moral right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.
All Rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted, in any form or by any means without the prior consent of the author, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that which it is published and without a similar condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
Published by YouWriteOn.com
Part One: Wolves and Sheep
Kiva hadn’t always looked like this; dusty, grey, scarred and hollow. Once, long ago, he’d been a fresh faced blond youth with piercing green eyes and a lithe build. In the days when he’d come out of the Northlands he’d had a budding, wispy beard and long, braided hair. He’d worn furs and leather and travelled out of the cold, swampy lands of his people into the heart of the Empire, golden and prosperous. It hadn’t been unusual in those days, when the Empire was at its greatest extent; when the borders were being forced north and east by generals whose names even now carried the weight of history and valour. The tribes at the fringes of the Imperial world had sued for peace with the Emperors and were beginning to see the benefits. For the first time in the history of the north the tribes had running, clean water, with aqueducts and drainage systems constructed under the expert eyes of Imperial architects and engineers. The young men had begun to learn the Imperial language, and many of them had begun to travel south to find service in the Empire’s bureaucracy or its military. All those years ago, the idea of a heated floor was unheard of in the north.
He sighed when he thought of that first day in the army. His braids had been cut away, his beard shaved and his favourite furs burned for fear of infestation. He’d stood with other young men of all colours both skin and hair, naked in a parade ground, while they were shorn and prepared for their training. Very little made Kiva smile these days; not properly, as though he actually meant it, but he’d laughed loud and often in those early days with his comrades. He shuffled under his blanket, trying to find a slightly more comfortable position against the rough wall. Pieces of plaster broke off and dust showered down his back causing him to shrug uncomfortably. He reached out and picked up one of the larger pieces. Painted plaster; an image of some sort of ornamental lake with a colonnade. This place must have been a rich house once.
He could remember just such decorative plaster work at the commanding officer’s house in the Northern Army’s headquarters fortress of Vengen, when he’d received his first military decoration. Over a mere three years, he’d made it through the lowest ranks and had become a non-commissioned officer. Then, little over a year later, as he received a golden torc for his defence of the Galtic Narrows against the barbarians, he’d also been made Captain, with his own unit. Barbarians? Now that really
threaten to make him laugh. The force of northmen he’d held back with less than a hundred troops had been his own people, or people very much like them. It had been in that action he’d met a young soldier called Athas from the far south, his skin dark as night, who had grown throughout the following years to be Kiva’s best friend and most trusted lieutenant. Others came to be trusted; his men had been a good crew even then, in the early days.
He glanced across the ruined building to Athas. The man slept little, but loud. Currently the big man crouched on a low and broken wall, watching the countryside in the night, alert and guarded. The charcoal-grey tunic, along with the colour of his skin, made him barely visible except for the eerie dancing light of the fire. The rest of the unit were asleep around the floor as Athas would be soon, once he’d woken the next watch. Then there would be snoring like the collapse of a marble quarry.
As he watched the fire flickering in the light breeze, his memory strayed once more to the age of glory in the Imperial army. In those days, the tunics had been emerald green and the arms and armour had been a standard issue. He remembered when he’d finally reached a position where he was not bound by the uniform code. He’d been made Prefect and given command over a thousand men, all new and eager for glory under the acclaimed commander. By that time he’d stopped wearing his military honours. They’d become numerous and bulky and had been taken to safety at the new estate that he was building at Serfium by the sea. Meteoric, people had called his ascent to command. No one in living memory had risen from the lowest ranks, without even Imperial citizenship, to become such a high officer. He’d made sure too that his trusted friends moved with him. Athas had been made Captain shortly before, and continued to hold a position as Kiva’s right hand man. By then there had been others; men who had proved time and again that they could be trusted in and out of battle. In those days of fire and steel and the glory of Kiva’s campaigns, with the ever-present Athas and a dozen men of skill and virtue, the Wolves had been born.
That was what they’d been called. Despite his command of a thousand, Kiva continued to travel chiefly with a party of a dozen men as his close companion unit. He’d made sure that they all achieved at least the rank of Captain; his influence in the Imperial bureaucracy was becoming powerful indeed. They’d taken to wearing wolf-pelts as a shoulder cloak. He’d also put in requisitions and had them agreed such that the regimental insignia was now a profile of a howling wolf, on both flag and standard. Their shields came to be painted with a wolf’s head. And the analogy was good, too, for they became predatory. The army no longer held the borders against the Empire’s enemies, guarding passes and constructing fortifications. Now, the Wolves forced campaigns into the wilderness, bringing the light of civilisation on the tip of a sword. They’d become hunters of barbarians and heroes of the Empire.
Once more Kiva’s attention was drawn back to the camp. The firelight was beginning to burn low. He would have to get some wood before long or the light and heat would be gone altogether and the unit would have nothing to cook breakfast on in a few hours. Across the fire he could see the wiry Thalo, hunched asleep by the wall, his grey, oval shield propped next to him. No lupine symbols in evidence these days. The days of heroes were gone, and the Wolves had been consigned to legend.
Even when he’d been made Marshal, one of the four commanding Generals of the Imperial Army invested by the Emperor himself, he’d been wearing his distinctive shoulder cloak as he received his baton of office. Behind him, the Captains of the Wolves had stood straight and true, pride and discipline emanating from them. Those had been such great days. The glory and the vigour of constant battle, secure in the knowledge of a righteous cause and a goal: to bring culture and civilisation to the whole globe. He’d been proud; but then he’d been ignorant... they all had. To serve in the Imperial army was to serve blindly, and no yet man can stay voluntarily blind his entire life.
With a yawn and a stretch, Kiva straightened his legs, the blanket falling to the floor. For a brief second Athas’s head snapped round at the noise. As he saw Kiva stirring, he nodded barely perceptibly and then turned his attention once more to the undergrowth. Stepping lithely between the slumbering forms of the unit, Kiva wandered out into the brush. His boots, old though they may be, were hardy and comfortable and he felt virtually none of the fractured pieces of crumbling masonry under his feet. At the fallen wall surrounding the once opulent room he picked up the hatchet Thalo had left there earlier and unfastened his belt, leaning the sheathed swords against the stonework.
The brush was prickly and painful, but Kiva’s thick leather breeches and heavy tunic protected him well enough. His armour remained in the building where he’d slept, too bulky to rest comfortably in these days. For a moment he almost tripped, cursing himself for his clumsiness. He was still inside the boundary of the crumbling building and had failed to notice the raised threshold between two chambers. The villa had been abandoned long enough that bushes grew within the rooms and much of the painted decoration had been eaten away by moisture or covered by lichens and thick green moss. Even a few small saplings tapered up from the walls, staking their claim to the light where one day the entire building would be lost in a forest floor. This place, Kiva thought, must have been one of the earliest casualties of the wars. He righted himself, considered turning to check if Athas had seen him trip, but changed his mind with a wry smile and continued on. Of course the hulking dark-skinned Sergeant had seen him; the man missed nothing. Beneath his feet as he followed a trail into the scrub he detected a flat, decorated area. Crouching, he hung the hatchet from a branch and peered at the ground. He was too far from the circle of firelight to get a clear view and yet still too close for his night vision to be fully attuned. He brushed the dirt floor with his fingertips. Mosaic. Despite a life of martial activity and an increasing despair with the world, he’d always maintained his fascination with mosaic, perhaps because they’d never had such a thing in the north when he was young. The need for firewood momentarily forgotten, Kiva reached into his pockets and withdrew his flint and tinder. After a few strikes, being very careful not to set the brushwood alight with a stray spark, the tinder took and a small beacon of orange light illuminated the floor. He moved the flame further away from the dry twigs; forest fires had their uses, but now was not the time. The dust was thick and with gravel, sticks and leaves and even small clumps of grass scattered among it. Leaving the light to one side, he began to brush away the dust and dirt with his hand, noting with interest a tooth and the broken tip of a dagger among the refuse, signs of the violent end the owners of such an opulent villa had met. Retrieving his water bottle, Kiva poured a small quantity onto the floor and watched as the colourful image came to life in the light cast by his small flame.
The God of wine sat in a gold and crimson chair, petting his goats, Tersiphory and Cilamna, while nymphs dropped grapes into his mouth with bright smiles and scant clothing. In the background were fruit trees and fields. Beautiful. Reaching out, he brushed more of the dust away from the edge and there was the first surprise of the night. A wolf.
Kiva had never been a deeply religious man; had never paid devotions as a boy to the Gods of the forest and, despite his oaths, had never truly taken on the Gods of the Empire. He wasn’t sure that he liked the idea of Gods at all; Gods would imply a plan or some sense of purpose and the things he’d seen in his eventful life had made him doubt the existence of anything but chaos and individual will. Besides, the Empire raised Gods from the mundane world, which was ridiculous in Kiva’s opinion. One thing he did know was that, while the wolf was a revered creature among his own people, it was considered a barbarous symbol here and no respectable Imperial religious imagery would include such a thing. Frowning, Kiva began to brush further at the mosaic. Other images were revealed and he had to blow to move the dust, pouring yet more of his precious water onto the design. The images couldn’t be right. If it were at all feasible, he’d have suspected a practical joke; an image designed specifically for him to see.
And yet there it was, the image of the sheep bearing a crown, the wolf running alongside - perhaps protecting it, perhaps hunting it. The image was deliberately ambiguous. Kiva sat back on his heels and stared at the mosaic. Unlikely imagery for the Empire. Not entirely dissimilar to a mosaic he’d paid ridiculous sums to have lain at his own estate so many years ago. Curious, the way coincidences…
A sudden rustling in the bushes drew his attention. He grasped automatically for his swords before remembering that he’d left them back at the wall. Reaching above him instead, he withdrew the small, chipped, but dangerously sharp hatchet from the branch where it hung. His had been the only unit on this side of the hill, guarding the flank of the largely mercenary army. After yesterday’s skirmish there would be numerous corpses and wounded scattered over the battlefield, but they’d all be in the dip at the other side of the crest; unless perhaps one of the wounded had managed to creep all the way around the periphery of the field. Kiva drew a deep breath and challenged the intruder.
“This is Captain Tregaron of the Grey Company. Declare yourself” he intoned in a loud, clear voice. There was no answer. The rustling had stopped.
Without glancing around, he knew that Athas had joined him. He could smell the uncommon Basra oil that the sergeant used on his armour and moreover he recognised the eerie silence that was the only sign of Athas moving unobtrusively. He also knew Athas’ modus operandi well.
“My Sergeant is here with a bow” he continued. “He’s an exceptional shot. Declare yourself or prepare to meet the Gods in person.”
There were several moments more of silence before the rustling began again and finally a pasty white hand appeared through the scrub. Kiva swung the hatchet back in a threatening fashion and growled “if you can’t declare a unit, show yourself.”
He waited, aware of a slight creak near his ear as Athas put a little more pressure on the bow. A moment later a second hand joined the first in a gesture of supplication and a pallid young face appeared among the leaves.
A light, well-spoken if nervous young voice called out “I don’t belong to a unit. I’m a civilian. Please?”
Kiva raised an eyebrow in surprise and stepped back slightly, giving the young man room to manoeuvre.