Eboracvm, The Fortress

Back to Main

Eboracum, The Fortress

Sequel to 'Eboracum, The Village'


Excerpts




Chapter II


Marcus paused as one of the few male slaves tried to catch his attention. The lad was a slim, handsome youth, with fine features and a mop of blond, curly hair that had obviously been dyed. "You have to cater to all your guests," Marcus had explained more than once when eyebrows were raised, quickly explaining he did not bend in that direction himself. On the other hand, if the inquirer himself wanted to lean just a little, then....

“What is it?”

“A soldier, master. At the street door. He wants to see you.”

“Who is it?”

“I don’t know. I think he’s from the guards.”

“Tell him to piss off.” The fair haired youth airily waving his free hand.

“Shit, better not,” Marcus muttered, and pushed himself up on the couch until he was sitting. “Did you tell him I was here?”

“No need, I can see for myself,” a deep voice boomed from the far side of the atrium. A praetorian officer, in full uniform and wearing his crested helmet, clattered noisily across the quadrangle. The man’s hobnailed boots clicked painfully loud on the tiled floor.

“Damn!” Marcus groaned the word under his breath, and clutched the side of his head as an ache grew inside.

“Young sir!” The soldier slammed to attention, his weathered features suppressing a grin that was nothing short of mockery. “I come bearing orders from on high.”

“How high, praefectus?” Marcus climbed indifferently to his feet, for no other reason than he didn’t care to look up at the man. Lucius Silva, the legion’s praefectus castrorum, was an officious turd at the best of times.

“From the praetorian legate himself!” Lucius seemed inordinately pleased as he presented Marcus with a sealed scroll. “You will also observe that, appearing on the illustrious document, is Vespasian's seal of approval.”

“The emperor?” Marcus’s voice was almost a squeak. “Why would...”

“Shouldn’t worry yourself, young sir, it’s nothing personal. The emperor’s seal on a gentlemen’s transfer from the praetorians is simply a matter of form.” Lucius gazed benignly at Marius and his mouth curled at the corner. “It seems that today it is not I who has to piss off, it is our young tribune. On an overseas adventure, I believe.”

“Overseas…,” Marcus said weakly, and the hand holding the scroll fell limply downward.

“Nothing new to you, though, young sir. I hear you’re an old hand in Britannia.” Lucius gestured to the dangling scroll. “It’s all in there.”

Marcus lifted the document as if it were made of lead and fumbled with the seal, his head pounding. The military had no more right to dispatch him to Britannia, than to send a harlot to the Vestals! He was a praetorian tribune. His father had arranged as much, dammit, and they had clasped wrists on their agreement: he would join the praetorian legion and serve a term of three years; he would live a suitable, officer-like life that would do credit to the family; then, in turn, his father...

Marcus abandoned that line of thought, his eyes skipping over the wording. Tribune Marcus Sabinius...by the order of His Imperial...will report immediately....take ship at Ostia..... overland to....the commanding officer...at Deva! What cesspit of Rome’s army had been dug at Deva?

“There’s a full size fortress at Deva, of course.” It was if the Praefectus was reading his thoughts, though the man’s eyes had followed Marcus’s as they scrolled down the page. “The Twentieth Valeria Victrix is stationed there. Fine regiment. Been in Britannia since the invasion. Senator Julius Proculus is the legate. Newly appointed.” The smile turned to a leer as Lucius removed his helmet and set it on a side table cluttered with wine jugs. He found a reasonably clean goblet and filled it. “I took the time to find that out for you, young sir. Very fair man, Julius. Strict disciplinarian, mind you; but as I said, very fair. Treats everyone the same.”

Marcus found his anger growing, and fought to rein it in. Two words stood out above all. One was Britannia. The other...

“When is immediately?” he demanded.

“No hurry. Tomorrow. Maybe the next day. Never looked into that. All I wanted to do is to make sure the record shows the order was handed to you. Let’s see, when was that?” The Praefectus glanced at the sundial, and when he continued his tone was heavier. “A half hour short of midday. I did call earlier this morning,” he gestured to the young male slave, “but the blond studlet told me his master was not to be disturbed. Personal slave, is he?”

“No, damn you. I keep him for...” Marcus glanced at his two guests, both of whom glared angrily back, and his voice faded to a whisper. “Should there ever be a need. Where do I...”

“The orderly room has your travel documents. I imagine they’ll still be there tomorrow.”

“My travel party. What arrangements do I....”

“Ah, tribune. It is not a party. You are going to the frontier. You are going as a junior tribune, young sire, not a legate. You are permitted one slave and three horses. One of those horses will be a pack animal, and one will be for the slave. You are not to be slowed by a walking slave. No slave, no extra horse.”

“One slave?” Marcus shouted the words, his anger growing. The son of a man of senatorial rank, and only one slave! The order was ludicrous. Why, his father...

Marcus swore under his breath. His father, he recalled, had served as senior tribune of the Ninth and kept only one slave. Or at least, he’d kept only one until purchasing that barbarian whore and her daughter. Another thought struck him, and he opened his mouth to voice it. “Can I take.....”

“And the slave will be male.”




Chapter XV


Without any apparent command, the barbarians who lived at the fort began moving out. The animals inside were forced into the open, while those on pasture were driven deeper into the hills. Some, such as the milk cows, were herded along the narrow track that led to the northwest. Carts and oxen followed, then a long, straggling column of bundle laden tribesmen, mixed in with the bellowing farm animals. Marcus bit his lip. The exodus could mean only one thing. If the barbarian was abandoning his hill fort, then a Roman army was surely on its way.

A figure crept silently up beside him and he whirled, startled. It was Urs.

“Your friends are coming,” the slave murmured.

“I think you have the right of it,” Marcus whispered, hardly daring to believe.

“You may smell the chicken, but it’s not yet on your plate.”

“Smell it? I can taste it, feathers and all,” Marcus said, then glanced at the slave. “So are you staying, or running?”

“One year has passed, there are two to go.” Urs smiled without humour, and grunted. “I can taste that, too.”

“But your chicken is not yet on the....” Marcus began, then broke off with a curse. A troop of barbarian cavalry galloped through the gate, along with several rider-less horses and a single chariot. Two broke away, riding straight toward Marcus. He recognized both.

“No one has taken you from here?” Dermat shouted, his voice angry. “Stupid fools…”

Cethen sat his horse fighting to maintain control. The animal’s blood was hot and it circled, fighting the bit. Pulling at the reins and cursing, Cethen’s eye caught that of the man on the chariot. “Dag, get rid of that useless pair of wheels. We want one of your ponies.”

“But...”

“Look, you great fat fool, your middle animal’s leaking blood like a headless chicken. It’s going to drop dead any moment.”

“What’ll I do, then?” Dag wailed.

“Ebric,” Dermat yelled. “Catch one of those strays for Dag, and bring it here.”

Dag hurried down from the chariot and unhitched the offside pony, quickly passing the reins to Ebric in exchange for those of the stray horse.

"What do I do with these?” Ebric demanded, staring in disgust at the long strips of leather and the scrawny pony standing at the other end.

“Just hold them,” Cethen yelled, then pointed to Marcus. “Get on that. Now!”

“And you,” Dermat tossed a knife into the dirt at Urs’s feet, and pointed to where the bleeding pony sagged in its harness. “Cut the reins off the crow fodder, and tie the Roman to the other one. Feet under its belly, and bind him tight. His hands too.”

“To what?” Urs asked, glancing at the animal’s bare back.

“Tie them to each other, idiot.” Dermat whirled on Marcus. “I said get on!”

Marcus took one look into Dermat’s eyes, and decided it was no time to argue; the man was at the end of his tether. He mounted the pony. Great tufts of the animal’s winter coat clung to its back and belly, falling away by the handful as he steadied himself. The pony’s rib cage felt like bare bones between his knees. Urs crouched down alongside, and Marcus felt the leather loop around his ankles, pulling them together.

“Tight. The knots will be tested, and you’re a dead man if they’re not tight,” Dermat growled.

Marcus winced as both ankles scrunched painfully together, and the leather bit deep into his flesh. A second piece quickly gripped both wrists, and he found himself helpless on the pony’s back as Cethen took the long reins.

“You,” Dermat pointed once more to Urs. “Keep up with him, or it’s at your own peril.”

Marcus glanced around. The hill fort was almost empty. Cethen started toward the open gate, but the pounding of more hooves sounded beyond. The barbarians tensed and readied their weapons. Marcus felt a flame of hope touch his heart, but a second troop rode through the entrance. Several were hurt and one of them, a man who looked hardly older than Marcus, rode his lathered horse alongside Cethen. The youth wore a sword at his belt, but both shield and spear were gone. A patch of blood glistened around a dark hole in the shoulder of his leather tunic.

“They must have seen the fort,” he said, gamely fighting the reins with only one hand. “They’ve sent a large force of cavalry forward.”

“I thought we had more time.” Cethen glanced anxiously at the gate, then down at the pony’s reins as if seeing them for the first time. “Here, Ligan, take these, and tie them to your saddle.”

“Hang on to him, we have to go back,” Dermat called out, even as he urged his horse through the gate. “In the long term, he may prove of more value than a small army.”




Chapter XVIII


“Perhaps I should offer riding lessons,” Morallta suggested derisively.

“Perhaps,” Rhun retorted, “what manner of ride did you have in mind?” The words were out without thinking, but he was irritated; both by his fall from the horse and her manner, which was one of contempt. But the woman did not seem offended, rather the opposite. She laughed, and jibed back. “So, the pup comes not to find his father, but to replace him?”

“Of course not, Morallta, I came to find out how you fare. You look well.” And she had worn well, Rhun realized. Her face was tanned and healthy, and her features retained the hard, aloof beauty he remembered from the trek to the Cumbrian hills. The tresses that burst from under the helmet were rich and almost silken, with not a trace of grey. For a woman who had to be, what? Well into her thirties? She looked damned good.

“You lie,” Morallta snorted, “at least about why you are here. You came to make sure I was not your father. And, I suppose, to snoop.”

Rhun ignored the comment and pushed elsewhere, for he was more than curious on another matter. “And my half brother. He does well?”

“He flourishes,” Morallta said, her face softening, and her voice for the first time sincere. “He will be here beside me, pushing the Romans back into the sea. The lad’s only eleven, but sits a horse as if he were part of it. His skill with a weapon is far beyond his years.”

“He’ll be fighting?” Rhun asked incredulously.

“He’ll have the smell of it,” Morallta said, raising her chin in a tight, sneering smile, “and he’ll also learn. He’ll learn much.”

“I wish him good health then, and perhaps you might tell him that,” Rhun said, but he had one more question. “My father, you were right. I had to make sure it was not him out here.”

Morallta grunted her amusement. “You hold your disappointment well.”

Rhun shrugged indifferently. “So how does he fare?”

Morallta stared at him sharply, her eyes thoughtful as she considered her reply. When it came, it was short and to the point. “He’s dead.”

Rhun sat stunned, for the moment unable absorb her words; then, finally, he repeated them. “He’s dead?”

“As a granite slab.”

“W-what happened?” Rhun asked numbly.

“His heart stopped beating,” Morallta said coldly. “That usually does it.”

“But it was only....” Rhun began, then promptly fell silent. He’d been about to protest that only yesterday his da had been alive, for Cian had told him as much. Yet his uncle had also told him how the two had met, and what had happened. Had his father’s help been discovered? Had they killed him? Rhun carefully phrased his question. “When did he die?”

Morallta ignored it. Her horse skittered again, but she adjusted easily in the saddle. When the animal was again still, she reached back and tapped one spear, half pulling it from its sling. “I don’t suppose you’d be interested....?”

Rhun gulped, his mind screaming a half dozen reasons why not, most of them valid. Topping the list was she was a woman, and had been his da’s - his da’s what? Wife, lover, mother of his child? In the true meaning of the word, the woman could be considered his own stepmother! He said as much, as he declined the offer.




Chapter XXIII


Elena watched as the three men gathered around Luga, Gaius seemingly oblivious to his wound. And why not, she thought wryly, the man had suffered enough of them during his service with the army. His battered body was the source of much banter, especially in bathhouse: from the jagged scar that crossed his skull, to the long, puckered stitch-marks that traced the length of his spine, was etched a route map of his military career. And here was yet another, she mused, a livid gash almost half a foot long, though by year’s end it would likely have shrunk to no more than a pale, ragged line.

A hand fell on her shoulder from behind, and she heard Coira speak. “Turning out to be a lovely day, don’t you think?”

Elena glanced up at the sky, which was at partly overcast, then to where the land sloped away to the east. A hard, steady sea wind blew inland, chilled by the early morning air. “I’d hardly call it lovely.”

“You’re alive, and a good, stiff breeze tells you that’s a good thing. And,” Coira playfully pushed her mother’s shoulder, “the old she bear’s cubs are safe home again.”

“Don’t call me ‘old’, or you’ll feel the flat of my blade,” Elena dug a sharp elbow in her daughter’s ribs, and grunted as it struck chain mail. Then she called out to Metellus, who had come from the command tent with a tray bearing a jug and a half dozen mugs. “I could make use of one of those.”

The slave poured both women a measure of watered red wine, and carried on to where Gaius and the other men were wrapped in the heat of discussion.

“The man’s brain will be floating by midday,” Coira observed.

“It’ll dull the pain,” Elena said, then frowned as her eye caught movement further across the camp.

A strange procession was nearing the legate’s tent, picking its way through the night’s carnage. It wasn’t large: a single centurio from the look of his helmet, and a half dozen soldiers trailing behind. But alongside the centurio walked what looked to be a prisoner of sorts, though if so, he was a poor prize.

As they drew closer, Elena noticed the fellow was almost starved: a scrawny male with a wild tangle of black hair, and a great unruly beard that covered his face and fell a good way down his chest. He was sparsely clad in rough woolen pants and a thin undershirt, though someone had seen fit to give him an army blanket that draped his shoulders like a cloak. Strangest of all, the man had a small child cradled in one arm.

The decurio strode straight to where Gaius and Agricola stood, both now alone; the two appeared to be arguing. Rhun and Luga had edged well back, staring anywhere but at the two senior officers. The centurio slammed to attention alongside the legate, a broad, foolish grin splitting his face as if he’d suddenly turned simple. Oddly enough, the wild looking hill man beside him wore the same expression.

Gaius finally caught sight of the pair and glared angrily at both. “What do you want?”

The centurio simply gestured sideways. The grimed barbarian crooked his head to one side as if expecting something, and deftly hefted the child in the crook of his arm. Elena, curious, felt Coira’s hand tighten hard on her arm.

“Shit!”

“Don’t talk to your mother like that, dear,” Elena murmured, then asked, “Shit what?”

“That’s Marcus.”

“No!” Elena cried, and stared hard at the apparition, squinting through half closed eyes. “What, in the name of dagda, makes you say that? It looks nothing....”

“It damned well is,” Coira muttered tersely. “I’d know the little snot anywhere.”