Authors: S. J. A. Turney
Tags: #Historical, #Fiction, #Rome, #Fantasy, #Generals
“Story closed. Ok?”
The two sat in silence for a long moment and finally the sergeant sighed.
something for a change” he said, rounding on Quintillian. “You studied in that community. I find it hard to picture a scholarly community getting by these days. It was ok in the old days before the Emperor went m… Before the collapse. But now? There’s precious little room in the world for quiet thought and study. What kind of people are they?”
The lad smiled.
“So now you’ll interrogate
Athas merely raised an eyebrow and made a beckoning motion.
“Ok” the boy began. “Well, I suppose the most important person to
on the island is my best friend Darius. I suspect you’d like him. He’s about the same age as me, but a little more active. He doesn’t study as much as I do. Well he does, but only really history, war, geography and politics. He
good at sports; and at fighting. We used to be trained in all sorts of fighting, even unarmed, and the only thing I ever regularly beat him at was archery. I can usually trick him into things though.”
“So why wasn’t he sent out instead of you?” the sergeant queried, his eyebrows raised in genuine interest. “Sounds more like someone you want charging round the countryside with money, no offence intended.”
“None taken” the boy replied. “The honest answer is that I don’t actually know. He
be better in truth. And he would fit in much better with the Grey Company. Still, I’m here on the orders of the elders and he’s not.”
A shout from below drew their attention to the grassland before the farm. A figure was jogging down the hill at some pace. Athas had the bow at the ready but, after a moment he laughed, dropped the weapon and leaned over the balcony.
“Scauvus is back already” he grinned. “He looks happy and he’s waving something.”
He turned and smiled at Quintillian as he began to make for the stairs.
“Conversation’s now for another time. Gotta go. Coming?”
The lad returned the smile.
“I’ll follow on in just a moment” he replied.
Quintillian had always thought of himself as a lateral thinker; a planner. He hated having to lie to people, but he knew when he had to and he was good at it. He’d
been one step ahead of the game, his entire life. And yet no matter how much he tried to think it through he couldn’t figure out why they’d left. They’d put the rest of the community in danger and fled in the middle of the night to gather money for heaven knows what purpose. No matter what reasons the elders had given him, he was well aware of the island’s status and the complete isolation from the world in which they were kept. Darius would have been much better on that dangerous night-time boat trip; much better at the hiding and travelling by night they’d have to put up with before they’d reached a safe enough distance from the island. Why was
here then, and not Darius? Why
they need money when they’d never have the opportunity to buy something? With Tomas and Enarion dead, there was little hope of finding anything out until he made it back to Isera. The elders were too clever by far and their reasons escaped him. As he turned and followed down the stairs to see his gold returned, he couldn’t help but wonder what the whole point was.
Quintillian sighed and rounded his shoulders before reaching down and removing his boots with a great deal of relief. It had been a long and arduous march since leaving the farmhouse and he’d watched with growing frustration as they’d passed four villages that the captain had considered too risky to enter. After twenty miles or so Tregaron had begun to relax a little, since they were out of Lord Bergama’s lands and considerably safer. A further ten miles had brought them to the small town of Acasio and its warm, welcoming tavern. In fairness, he’d been allowed to spend a great deal of the journey in the cart with the equipment; a cart that he was fairly sure the captain had stolen from a nearby farm. Of the thirty-some miles they’d travelled, the lad had probably walked between ten and fifteen, but then he wasn’t used to such long distance hiking, and especially not with weapons and kit.
The moment they’d arrived in the town, the Company had set eyes on the small market and had dispersed to purchase various goods leaving the captain, the sergeant and the boy standing in the street. Tregaron had raised an eyebrow and nodded his head in the direction of a tavern called ‘The Rapture’. Athas had shaken his and gestured at the boy.
“Need to get him some armour” he’d explained. “We’ll get along to the nearest smith and meet you in there afterwards.”
So saying they’d turned and walked on, leaving the captain to enter the tavern alone. Athas had consulted Quintillian only very briefly on the subject of armour, more a confirmation of his own ideas than a real enquiry, and had then turned his attention to the smith and struck up a conversation about the folding of steel. It seemed that the big sergeant had both the knowledge and the skills of a smith. Quintillian had stood and listened for a few minutes until he was thoroughly bored and had then made his way from the smithy out into the street, browsing the few shops with interest. He’d spent his entire life in seclusion on the island and even such remote parts of the outside world still held interest for him in almost every corner. A minute or two of browsing and he’d made a surprising discovery: a scribe and bookseller. That was unusual to say the least in such a small provincial town. He’d perused the reasonably meagre though good quality range for around a quarter of an hour before his eyes lit upon a treasure: Carso’s treatise on the collapse of the Empire. He’d read sections of it in the library on the island, but it was considered too valuable to leave in the hands of youngsters, so he’d never had a chance to read through from cover to cover. He’d been forking over the change for the purchase and complimenting the scribe who owned the place when an angry looking Athas had flung open the door and drawn him painfully outside by the ear.
“Where the hell have you been?” he’d demanded. “You can’t just go wandering off whenever you want, you know?”
Athas had taken in the wide-eyed expression of the lad and the way he clutched the book tightly to his chest and had sighed.
“The armourer’s going to take the rest of the day to put your stuff together, so we’re heading for the tavern. Now.” With those few words, the burly sergeant had hustled Quintillian across the street and into The Rapture.
Since then he’d had a reasonably good and filling meal and two glasses of beer. The Company had refused to order him the watered wine he wanted, just spirits or beer. He sighed again as his eyes strayed from the plate of chicken bones to the book lying open before him. He like Carso’s writing. The style was fluid without being over-elegant; factual yet readable. He smiled as he turned the page. It was strange to think that he’d read so much history in his young life and now here he was, among the men who’d actually
that history. The Grey Company had been there when the Empire had crumbled; had seen it fall, even been involved in it. His eyes flicked around the room taking in his companions and finally lit on Mercurias, heading for his table and carrying a small tray.
“T’aint no good sitting drinking on your own” he grinned, his teeth flashing surprisingly white in the lamplight. “Solitude drives a man mad.”
Quintillian returned the smile.
“I find solitude gives me time to read and think. I’m used to it.”
The medic sat heavily in the chair opposite the lad. He unloaded the contents of the tray onto the table, a brooding unlabelled bottle of some unknown spirit and two small slightly chipped glasses, and then reached out to the book. The boy drew in a sharp breath involuntarily and the medic stayed his fingers as he touched the cover.
“You value this too much” Mercurias sniffed. “Books are for entertainment. Food and drink and company are worth a great deal more. You’ll learn that in time.”
“The written word” he said haughtily, “is far more important than the mere vulgarities of physical existence. We’ll be long dead when this text is still illuminating and educating generations of scholars.”
Mercurias smiled sarcastically and patted the book once before turning it to see the spine. His smile broadened as he read the title.
“Carso: Empire in Ashes” he chuckled. “Utter crap!”
Quintillian bridled and snatched the book from under the medic’s hand, cradling it in front of him. His voice had risen in pitch when he addressed the medic.
“This is a work of genius” he argued. “Well written and accurate, from a man who was well placed in the Imperial bureaucracy at the time of the fall. I’ll bet you haven’t even read it!”
“Don’t take offence lad; none’s intended.” He sighed. “Probably
well written, but it
also crap. You’ve got to stop taking things at face value. True, I haven’t read it, but I’ll guarantee you its inaccurate. Carso was no better placed to document the collapse than your average provincial farmer. He
have been in the bureaucracy, but that means nothing. The man was harbourmaster at Rilva, way over in the east. I shouldn’t think he set foot within a thousand miles of the capital during the entire time. Carso’ll have done what most historians do and pieced together bits from other people’s writing; people who really
The lad continued to hold the book defensively.
“But it’s corroborated so well by everything else I read.”
“’Course it is” the medic continued. “All these writers use each other for information. They’re bound to all be the same. Don’t take ‘em as gospel. Personal experience is the only thing worth paying real attention to.”
Quintillian narrowed his eyes.
“So you mean that
could tell me the truth?”
The medic shrugged and poured a slightly cloudy pungent spirit from the black bottle into the two glasses.
there, it’s true” he said softly. “The wars were all close to home by then and there was more need for doctors in the homeland than on the frontiers. Most of the medical corps was based in the capital at the time, in fact. I can tell you
things. Others are best left buried. What in particular do you want to know?”
The boy leaned forward, considering whether to drink the spirit. He clicked his tongue a few times and then picked up the drink and sipped it. The face he pulled made Mercurias laugh loudly.
“Slam it down,” he grinned, “For heavens’ sake don’t sip it. It’s not wine.”
Quintillian wiped his eyes and rubbed his burning lower lip. His voice came out little more than a wheeze.
want to know is about the Captain and the unit. You were all there, weren’t you; not just the medics. You were all in the capital at the end; when it happened.”
The medic narrowed his eyes.
“What the hell makes you think we were there?” he said defensively. “There were a lot of units spread across the central Empire then. I think the Captain and most of the lads were out to the west.”
“Do you have a canteen?” he asked.
The medic nodded and, slowly withdrawing the object from his pack, placed it on the table between them. The lad smiled knowingly and turned the flask over to reveal the engraved wolf’s head on the other side. He pointed at the decoration.
“You all have them” he pointed out. “The Captain’s very intelligent I know, but he’s not doing a very good job of hiding who he is. Or the rest of you for that matter.”
Mercurias leaned across the table, his face inches from the boy’s. His voice issued in a threatening whisper.
“If you really did know what you were talking about, you wouldn’t be doing it so loud.”