Authors: S. J. A. Turney
Tags: #Historical, #Fiction, #Rome, #Fantasy, #Generals
“Of course.” Dio took another sip. “I wouldn’t say the Gods ruled my life, but I certainly try to respect their wishes whenever I can and not fly in the face of their rules.”
Sabian smiled. “And what if I told you that you were wrong, Dio. What would you think then? If the Gods had deserted us?”
Dio narrowed his eyes. “What is it you know, Sabian?”
“I know who the ‘Emperor’ Darius really is. And having spent some time with him, I’m of the horrible opinion that he might be just the man the world needs.”
“What do you mean who he ‘really is’?” the old lord leaned forward in his chair.
Sabian shrugged. “I’m sworn to silence. I’m straining to keep that vow, because it’s suddenly more important than I could ever have thought when I made it.”
Dio growled. “Sabian… if this is as important as you seem to be suggesting, the Gods will be your judges, not whoever you made a vow to. Speak!”
The commander sighed and leaned back in his chair. “If I do tell you, you cannot make it public. I may take you and even others into my confidence, but I’m not about to announce this for a whole variety of reasons.”
He shuffled in his seat and took another swig of wine before refilling his cup.
“He’s the Caerdin child.”
He watched the startling serious of expressions crossing Dio’s face with some satisfaction. He’d been holding that particular secret in so long he couldn’t believe how freeing it felt opening up to someone.
“He’s Caerdin’s son and that makes him Livilla’s son too, and a member of Quintus’ Imperial household by blood.” He smiled weakly at the elderly lord. “
tell me who’s got the true claim.”
Dio sat for a long moment and whistled through his teeth. “I think I can see why Velutio’s keeping this under wraps. But the enemy don’t know either, do they, or we’d have heard it by now.”
“Very astute,” agreed Sabian. For a number of reasons there are only a couple of people in Caerdin’s camp who know and they can’t reveal it either. That’s a personal matter and not something to be lightly undertaken. It’s not for Velutio I’m keeping this quiet, but for Darius and Caerdin. Even the general and the boy are unaware and it has to stay that way.”
Dio stared at him. “You’ve perhaps too much honour to do your job properly, Sabian.”
The commander laughed out loud. “You have no idea how sick I’m getting of hearing that. But you’re a man from the same mould, Dio. Hell, you supported Caerdin against Avitus after the Emperor’s fall from grace, I seem to remember.”
“True.” Dio sat cradling the goblet between his hands and staring at the floor. “I’m in a quandary now, commander. You know that, because you put me there and I can’t help thinking you did that on purpose. You won’t desert, but your conscience is pushing me to do it for you. I should, by rights, turn and walk away with my men.”
Sabian nodded. “But then by rights, so should I. If you went with your men, I wonder how many of the other lords would follow you?”
“You’ve given me a lot to ponder commander. I am, of course, taking your words at face value despite their importance, but I have the feeling you’re telling me the truth. I think I’ll come with you to the Tosco valley before I make my decision. I think I’d like to see this Caerdin child first.”
Sabian nodded. “I hope the Gods grant you a reasonable path and that it’s the right one, for I can’t help but think I’m on the wrong one and heading for hell.”
As Sabian and Dio sat within the lord’s tent, deep in discussion, a figure moved among the men of Lord Vassario’s army a few hundred yards away. He was of average height and average build in a red tunic bearing Vassario’s emblem of a tree and a sword, with a military scarf pulled up around his throat. A common soldier carrying a sack was a figure to be ignored and no one paid any attention whatsoever as the extremely average man threaded his way between other soldiers carrying gear.
Certainly no one examined him closely enough to spot his swarthy, Pelasian skin under the dirt covering that was so common of soldiers in autumn campaigns. He struggled with the sack of grain on his shoulder and found his way to a tent. It was only a small tent by the standards seen elsewhere on the camp; certainly not the size of the lords’ command tents and considerably smaller than the eight-man tents the troops shared. A medium-sized affair, it nevertheless had the unit’s insignia on a standard thrust into the turf outside. The Pelasian looked around quickly and disappeared inside.
Terrico was once of lord Vassario’s three captains and probably the least popular. A martinet, he had a reputation for cruelty and it was possibly only that reputation that had prevented more desertions from the army, or so Terrico would like to think. A stocky man with a thick black beard, he turned in the midst of shaving his upper lip, a silver mirror in one hand and a sharp razor in the other. He glared at the intruder.
“What in the name of Bellas’ arse are you doing in here?” he demanded.
The dirty soldier dropped the sack at the doorway and saluted hurriedly.
“Sir, I’ve a message from the quartermaster. He says it’s urgent.”
The captain scraped another patch of foamy hair from his lip and then nodded, examining his face in the mirror. The soldier walked across the tent, reaching into his tunic and producing a rolled parchment. He bowed his head and held the parchment out of the captain, who replaced the mirror and blade on the trunk by his side and grasped the parchment, unfurling it as he did so. His surprise at being confronted with a blank sheet was as nothing compared to his surprise when the dirty, unimportant soldier reached past him with lightning speed and drew the razor back and up, drawing it in one smooth move across the captain’s windpipe.
There was a rush of expelled air and blood frothed from the man’s neck as he arched backwards, his eyes wide with surprise. He never even got the chance to scream. Dropping the parchment, he clutched at his neck, but nothing he could do would help now. He floundered around for a moment, trying to get past his attacker and to the tent flap, but the soldier was always in the way wherever he moved. With a sigh he finally slumped to the floor, the whistling noise dying as he did so.
The Pelasian pulled a stylus from his tunic, dipped it in the captain’s blood and began to scribble on the parchment. Finishing his note with a flourish, he laid the parchment flat on the captain’s chest and pinned it there with the shaving knife. With a last ironic salute, he stepped away from the figure and collected his sack of grain. Plodding to the rear of the tent, he crouched and glanced under the leather side. Empty. With a grin he pushed the sack underneath and crawled after it, disappearing from the scene an ordinary soldier with a job to do.
It would be almost an hour later that a soldier, sent to find out why captain Terrico was late, would stumble into the tent and across the body of the captain lying in a pool of congealed blood and a note pinned to his chest. Five minutes later the note was in the hands of Lord Vassario, but not until after it had been seen by more than a dozen men. The parchment had simply said: ‘Darius Imperator. Thus die all tyrants.’
By the time the army reached their next night’s camp, Vassario’s army had lost almost four hundred men to desertion and the lord found himself in the command tent explaining the losses in a panicky voice to an angry Velutio.
And the word of the note had not stopped with Vassario’s men.
At the same time as Vassario was being berated by his master, the army of the Emperor Darius made camp in a deep valley of vineyards and farms, stretched out over some distance due to the slope of the terrain. Darius made his way into his command tent, which was still being set up. Soldiers of his personal guard carried chairs and tables and other furnishings in from one of the wagons as the Emperor sighed and gratefully unfastened the buckles that held his cuirass together. He lifted off the front and tossed it carelessly on the bed that had just been dropped to one side, before taking the rear plate and treating it much the same way. With a long stretch, he rubbed his sore shoulders and collapsed heavily into a chair.
Caerdin entered a moment later with Tythias and Balo. The general continued to look paler and weaker by the day and every time he set eyes on the man, he felt fresh waves of worry and sadness. Trying not to show it, he smiled and gestured to the other seats.
“I thought with all the extra time we’d made up and the travelling until dark had fallen, we were going to be at your chosen place by tonight.”
Kiva nodded. “We probably could have been with a couple of extra hours, but it’s no longer urgent. Tythias’ scouts report that Sabian’s army is still at least a day away and are camping down each night. We’re maybe two hours away. Under these circumstances, I’d rather we arrived early in the morning and the men could get a good idea of the terrain. Plus it’ll be a lot more comfortable drawing up our defences in the daylight. We’ll have all day to set up before Velutio arrives and we can have the entire army fortifying our position in rotated groups while the others rest and eat. Our force will be nicely rested and fully fortified by the time the enemy get there. All in all, I’m happy with the progress.”
“Good.” Darius smiled, reaching out for the jug of refreshments one of the soldiers had delivered. “I think we’re just about ready then, or as ready as we’ll ever be, anyway. Now what we need to do is discuss what’s going to happen on the day itself.”
Kiva relaxed. “Firstly we’re going to be in our absolute finest. Full ceremonial gear for all senior officers and all of your guard. That means no plain cuirasses. Embossed breastplates are a must. Full military cloaks, crests, standard bearers with all the banners and cavalry masks.”
“They were worn in the old days by cavalry officers on parade and sometimes on the battlefield. Burnished steel face masks that attach to the helmets. Apart from the ‘scaring the hell out of the enemy’ effect they were originally designed for, it’s no secret now that I’m not a well man. I don’t want Velutio or Sabian, or even our men to see how death himself is leaning over my shoulder these days.”
Darius thought long and hard about this. He wasn’t sure how comfortable that would be, but there was a lot of sense in what the general said and he’d seen pictures in some of the old texts of the cavalry in their expressionless masks. They certainly would make a startling impression.
“Very well. And what next?”
Tythias leaned forward then.
“Next is the parlay. You and Kiva and I, along with any staff officers who don’t have direct command of a unit, ride along our front ranks a few times to get the men’s blood up and some cheering going. Banging of swords on shields and so on; you know the sort of thing. Then we all ride out to the middle of the battlefield and meet with Sabian and Velutio and whoever else they bring with them. We demand their surrender. They laugh and demand ours. We laugh and then we all go our separate ways. After that, it’s down to whatever strategy Kiva’s got lined up for us.”
Darius nodded. “And that is?”
Kiva smiled. “While we’re at the parlay, I’ve got something planned. Cialo and his men will be absent for that time running a very important little errand for me. If all goes well, we’ll all know what to do within minutes of the parlay ending. I’m not revealing the details yet. The more people that know about it, the less chance there is of it succeeding. If it works, we can all heave a sigh of relief.”
“That’s all very well, Kiva, but what happens if it fails, or if you’re too ill to come out to the parlay.
have to know what’s going on in case
have to deal with it.”
Caerdin grinned weakly. “Let an old man have some surprises left. I’ve made it all this way and I can assure you, I’ve absolutely no intention of being out of the way until I’ve seen it through one way or the other. You’ll just have to trust me on that.”
Minister Sarios yawned and flicked open his eyes, rubbing at the gritty sleep that threatened to hold them shut. He turned his head this way and that in the bafflement one suffers after being suddenly awoken from a deep sleep. The hammering on the wooden tent frame came again. He clicked his tongue irritably and climbed laboriously out of his cot. Groaning, he shuffled towards the door, scratching at his side.