Nico was sure that the weather was growing colder the further north that they travelled. It had been two days since their ship had landed, and the northern border Roman town had been full of tales of woe and strife.
“No sign of those heathens, then?” Taxon said with a slur, due to his missing teeth. Nicodemus was glad that he had an old hand like Taxon with him. He had been through enough campaigns to know what to do even before it needed doing. I wonder if I should promote him to sergeant? The Captain thought, knowing that he needed to shore up support in his leadership over his men.
“Not yet, anyway,” Nico nodded to the white tops of the mountains, rearing their storm-encrusted heads high above them. They were heading for the pass through those mountains, taking the low-land route if they could – and on the other side: Gaul.
The squad had grumbled over their sudden departure for the north. Half of them had still been drunk from the brothels and taverns of Rome, and he had already had a few desertions as some of them had begged fellow Captains of rival Legions to take them on. But Captain Nicodemus didn’t mind. He would rather have a smaller squad for this type of mission anyway, and he would rather have one that was drunk than one that was outright treasonous.
Like Maximus? Nico threw a sharp look over to where the hulking centurion rocked gently in his saddle. Now if there was anybody that I would suspect of putting a gladius in my back while I slept – it would be him! Strange that he didn’t jump ship in Rome when he had the chance.
“Captain,” Maximus caught his eye, grinned, and bobbed his head slightly. Enough not to be considered disrespectful.
“Centurion.” Nico responded, turning his attention back to the road ahead of them; as it wound its way up through the foothills and upland through meadows and under the mountains. The thought of Maximus being happy, of grinning, made Nico feel distinctly unwell.
“Another couple of hard days of riding, I reckon sire,” Taxon broke into the Captain’s train of thought.
“I forgot, you’ve travelled this route before, haven’t you?” Nicodemus asked him.
“Aye, the campaign went right up through Gaul, right to the edge of the northern seas sire. The Generals wanted to cross over to Briton itself – but they never did.” Taxon laughed, covering it up quickly when he said, “not that it wouldn’t be an honor to serve the Republic, of course.”
“Ha.” Nico shook his head. “You don’t have to worry, Taxon. You won’t offend me by speaking plainly. This mission we’re doing now is just to pick up some taxes, get a report, and be off. Not a lot of ‘glory’ involved, I’m afraid.” The Captain said.
“Ah, a soldier’s life has always got glory in it, sire.” Taxon bobbed his head. “There’s a glory to soldiering well, that’s what I was taught. No matter whether your standing on gate duty or fighting the heathens…” Taxon raised his voice to include the centurions behind him in the discussion. “Ain’t that right, lads? Glory to shoveling and digging and eating grits, am I right?”
“Ave!” Some of the less hung-over men shouted.
“Glory to being rained on and cold and having a rock for a bed, right lads?” Taxon barked.
“Ave!” More of the men chanted, this time grinning and laughing.
“Glory to being the toughest son-of-a-bitch out there, right lads?” Taxon cajoled them.
“Ave! Ave! Ave!” They roared with pride.
Nico felt oddly touched by their display of bravado. Many lesser men would have grumbled and griped about having to travel so far away, for so little reward. But not these – they got a perverse pleasure out of enduring more than any other.
Maybe I can make this work yet. Nicodemus thought. Maybe I can be the Captain that Lamphria believes me to be…
By nightfall, the squad had braved the winds and the first sleets of rain arrived at their small watchtower that sat under the mountain pass. It had some local name that Nico immediately forgot. He knew that it didn’t matter anyway. Him and his men would be here for one night and gone in the morning.
The centurions who manned this place were a rough, rangy sort of men – and more than a few of them sported the criminal brand on their cheek or hands that marked them out as adulterers or thieves.
“Captain Octavius,” said the watch captain, a man called Aurelius, with lank brown hair more than a score of years older than Nicodemus, with a broad ‘X’ burned into the side of his cheek. He smiled crookedly when he saw the Tax Collector looking at it. “Pretty, ain’t it?” the man muttered.
“I’ve seen worse.” Nico dismounted from his horse. “I have the seal of the Senate, captain, and am requesting permission to garrison my men and steeds for the night at your watchtower.”
“Oh, the requests of a Tax Collector are always honored here, sir.” Captain Aurelius sniggered. “Actually, we had a runner not yesterday, sent ahead to tell us to provision and expect you.”
“A runner?” Nicodemus asked, frowning as he took his saddle off of his steed.
“Aye. Went on ahead to prepare for the arrival of Rome’s holy judgement,” Aurelius sniggered again, turning back to his own watching and leering men, regardless of the sight that he was giving this fellow captain. “make yourselves at home boys. We’ve got wine and we’ve got beef, and there’s space in the hall for you and your men to bed down.” Aurelius said over his shoulder.
Hmm. Nico watched as the watch captain disappeared into the tower, a brief square of laughter and light appearing as he opened the door. Already, Captain Nico’s men were happily dismounting and shrugging off their armor to follow him.
“Neuvius?” Nico asked the youngest member of his troop.
“Yes sire?” The boy looked at him with wide, open eyes.
“I want you to keep watch on our horses tonight lad. Share the duty with Taxon and any that will join you. I don’t trust this lot one bit.” Nico said.
“As you command, sire,” Neuvius nodded as Nico followed his men into the tower.
The watch tower under the pass was a place whose usefulness had passed it by. As the Roman Republic had swept northward, this little place that had kept watch over the passes had been superseded by other towers and garrisons further north. Now, all it was used for was as a waystation for tired travelers, a place to re-provision on the long march north. The wooden palisade wall had never been replaced with stone, and the repair work was minimal as far as Nicodemus could see. It was a sort of hidden-in-plain sight place. Forgotten by anyone of import, and watch captain Aurelius knew it.
The main hall was a wooden building with two central fire pits, with benches and tables around the sides. Already, Nico could see that the majority of his men had joined the watch around the fires, regaling each other with war stories and exploits with their lovers. The lack of discipline made Nico uneasy, but not as suspicious as the crates and barrels of goods stacked at one end of the hall.
How much of their provisions I wonder are taken from those that travel the Republic? Nico knew that he could demand to see their papers, to check that the tower had paid all of its correct tribute to Rome – but he also knew that an old band of rogues like Aurelius had here would have all of the right, forged documents.
And besides, what use is causing trouble on the road? Let me just get to Sileni and get back again. Back to my Lamphria.
Lamphria. Just the thought of her made Nico’s heart sing. How long would it be until their child would be born? How much longer would they have to wait until they could be promised to each other before Venus and Jupiter, Mars and Mercury?
The pain of being apart from her was almost too much – if he stopped to think about it, he knew that he would suddenly cast aside his armor and his men, and race back to Rome then and there-
But no. Nico knew that he couldn’t do that, despite however much he wanted to. She deserves better. He thought of her smile and her hair, her golden skin and her quick wits. Nico knew that he would never be able to give Lamphria the sort of life that she deserved: the glorious festivals, the banquets, a villa all of her own.
A wave of laughter and the smell of cider-like wine woke Nico from his reverie. He gritted his teeth and sighed. Just another mission, and he could return. Just get the job done.
“Sileni!?” One of the more-than-drunken watch tower guards blurted out to one of Nico’s men. It wasn’t the loud voices that caught the Captain’s attention: but the sudden, immediate hush that broke out around him.
“Yeah, what of it?” Said Oreste, one of Nico’s better trackers, with a nose broken so many times it looked as though it had given up on its original function and now had settled to just be a fleshy fungus upon the poor centurion’s face.
“Oh, you poor sods.” The watch guard laughed, slapping his thigh, raising a flagon of wine to declare. “To those about to depart from here, Rome salutes you!” He cried in mockery of the traditional speeches and declarations of valor by the Senate.
“What’s so bad about the Sileni?” Orestes pushed. “We know they’re a bunch of Gauls – but who can’t handle that? What, a bunch of men who can’t even be bothered to shave in the morning, right?” He laughed at the others.
“Yeah, you show them son.” Aurelius’s watch cheered and jeered, but still, Nico didn’t like the way that Aurelius was looking at his men. Did he know something that they didn’t?
If it was just up to me I would take my men out of here tonight, Nico thought, before being battered by thoughts of returning to Lamphria once again. But they need the rest. A night under the mountain without a roof over their head would make them freeze…
The Captain cast one last look at the watch captain Aurelius, saw him deep in conversation with Maximus. Birds of a feather? Nico thought, before selecting his own, out-of-the-way place to sleep near the door.
That night, he slept with his gladius clutched in his hand, under his rolled-up cloak of a pillow.
Morning came cold and chilly to the watch house, with a fresh spattering of snow to turn the ground into a sludgy mush. Nico left his bed before first light, to find Taxon sitting over a small fire, Neuvius huddled in his own cloak beside him.
“Thank you.” Nico said. “No news?”
“Two men.” Taxon muttered. “Left about a watch or two ago, in the deep of the night.” Taxon raised an eyebrow. “Travelling north.”
“Hm. Thank you, centurion.” Nico mulled over this news as he woke up his men, and saw to it that they washed and ate for the journey ahead. Why would two of Aurelius’s men leave in the middle of the night? Where they thieves, fearing justice?
Aurelius himself came out to see the Tax Collectors off, giving them a salute that could have passed for an obscene gesture. Nico ignored him as he led his men northward, through the mountain pass.
The day grew colder, the wind grew louder, and every step of their horses took them higher. Soon the trees on either side of them entirely vanished, leaving just scrubby thorn bushes, boulders and the occasional heather. The men grumbled and drew their snow-frosted coats around their shoulders, eating their hard jerky rations in the saddle. Nico wouldn’t let them stop to make a fire for their dinner. Not out here.
They crossed the highest point in the early afternoon, before starting to descend down again on the other side, the white fogs heavy all around them. The first arrow to pierce the fog hit Orestes, below his broken nose and crooked mouth, straight through the neck.
“Urk!” No one reacted for a moment, as Orestes seemed to cough as if all that was wrong with him was just a little thing caught in his throat. The truth was much bigger. With a sigh, he collapsed onto the slush and snow of the downward path, the arrow snapping, and blood pooling his chest.
“FOE! FOE! DEFEND YOURSELVES!” Taxon was the first to call, as the next arrow took out the horse from under him and he too, came crashing down.
“BLADES! CENTURIONS CHARGE!” Nico roared, drawing his Gladius and spurring his steed onward in the direction of the attackers. He knew that the only chance they had was to route them. In this heavy fog they could pick them off if they retreated or tried to hide. They had to cross the killing ground as quickly as they could-
Phwip! Another, small black arrow flared past his shoulder as he forced his horse to charge downward towards it. Nico hadn’t considered that this was exactly what his attackers wanted them to do. Dark shapes emerged out of the fog, only they weren’t moving – it was a hunched over forest of scrubby thorn trees.
“Woah!” Nico had just time to grab his horse’s reins hard to one side, but it was already too late. Her hooves slid on the icy surface, and as she bucked, he was catapulted over her head, and into the thorn trees.
His world tumbled, and pain lanced through him as he crashed to the muddy floor below, then proceeded to slide and tumble down the slope, crashing against more boulders and trees. Nico grunted, scrabbled, his gloves seeking any leverage as he slipped ever further and faster downwards. With a gasp he caught onto the tortured trunk of a tree and finally managed to cling on. Above him, he heard the whinnies and screams of men and horses, followed by the ringing sound of steel on steel. His men were fighting, and maybe even dying.
Nico kicked his feet out, finding that the slope that he was on was near vertical. With painful muscles, he started to pull himself up to the tree, reaching out for another of the miniature thorn trees –
Creeak! There was a crack as the frozen trunk he was holding – no thicker than his arm – snapped, and Nicodemus fell into the mountain gorge below…
Lamphria? Nico’s mind reached towards the scraps of a dream that he had so recently been clinging onto. A dream of his wife, and summer in a vineyard…
The warmth was not the warmth of the sun, but the harsh warmth of a fire, and the light was not the full-bodied golden sunlight, but the watery, grey and white glare of mountains and snow.
“Captain? He’s coming around.” Said a voice.
“Neuvius?” Nico coughed, cracking his eyes open. Everything hurt. He felt like he had fallen off a mountain, which, he rather thought he might have done.
“It’s me sire, it’s okay – you’re safe.” And then, turned to speak to someone else, just out of sight. “He’s alive.” Some shuffling, and another shadow crossed Nico’s line of sight.
“Captain?” it was Taxon’s voice. Nicodemus could hear the relief in it already, even as his blurred eyes focused on the old centurions. He was sporting an ugly bruise to the side of the head, but other than that – he looked fine. Neuvius was pale, a bit bashed up and there were the dark ochre stains of dried blood on his tunic, but he, too, was similarly in one piece. Behind them, Nicodemus could see the dense, enfolding dark of the wood, and he could smell the spongy moss underneath where he lay.
“How bad?” Nicodemus coughed. “How bad is it?”
Taxon and Neuvius shared a look, and the Captain could see that there were many things that they did not want to share with him, but something about the way that he was looking at them forced them to.
“It was bad, sire.” Taxon said heavily. “Me and the boy, you. I think I saw Maximus get out of there on the other side of the trail. All of the others….” He shook his head.
“All of them?” Nico spat angrily, sitting up, only for a wave of vertigo to wash over him, making him retch weakly into the moss.
“There. Easy Captain.” Taxon was there once again, one hand steady on his shoulder, passing a mug of warm broth to his lips. “We’re lucky we got that much. We fished you out of the river only a few hours ago – and we were sure that you were going to wake up addled, or not wake up at all with that shiner on your head.”
So I did fall down a mountain, and into a river. Nico thought, knowing enough not to bother speaking as he drank the warming liquid. Above him, Taxon kept on talking.
“So, we carried you out here, away from the worst of it, then I snuck back to see what could be made of it. Nothing. Bodies everywhere sire, and the horses are gone. I reckon it was those bastards from Aurelius’s crew myself. They looked more than half criminal, if you get my drift.”
Nico nodded his agreement as he watched Neuvius bank up the fire. “But still… the men’s bodies?” He coughed.
Taxon sucked air through his few remaining teeth. “It was an organized attack, sire. Planned and executed well. And someone had the balls to attack a squad of Roman centurions too, going about the Senate’s business. I reckon we try to cross back up the pass and down into Roman territory or go forward to Sileni. Make a complaint to the Governor there, get him to send out the legions to Aurelius and his little band of dogspit!” Taxon cursed with surprising vehemence.
It made Nico’s blood boil. How could he leave the bodies of Orestes there, lying in the mud, food for bears and wolves? What would he tell the mothers of all of the sons he led into a trap?
As if Taxon could see the thought crossing his Captain’s mind, he whistled. “Uh-huh sir. Co-ordinated attack I reckon. They’ll be counting the bodies and realizing that three got away, for sure. That pass will be watched.”
“Four.” Nico corrected. “You said Maximus might have got out, too.”
“Yeah, I reckon that he might have done.” Taxon growled, and the question was heavy in the air for a moment, before both men turned abruptly when Neuvius walked over. Unspoken, neither of the older centurions wanted to talk about treason and having to dispatch one of your own in front of the youngest. But it happened, sometimes.
“Captain? Made up a bed for you by the fire sire. Just a load of dry leaves and moss, but it’s warmer than the floor.” Neuvius bowed his head.
“Ha. You’re a good kid, Neuvius.” Nico winced, as pain thumped across his temples as he levered himself to his feet. “But I didn’t get to be a Captain without having to sleep a few nights on bare soil. You take the bed. You’re still young enough to appreciate it.” Nico clapped the younger centurion on the shoulder, before huddling closer to the fire. He didn’t think that he would be able to sleep much tonight anyway.
“Tomorrow we make for Sileni, and Governor Septimus.” Nico said.
“Ave, Captain.” Taxon agreed solemly.
The trio broke camp before light; as a hidden urgency gripped Nicodemus. He didn’t want to be seen out on the road, or to be too near the mountains if he could help it. Whomever had attacked his men were no normal group of bandits and thieves. They had waited until the densest fog to aid hem, and they had lured the centurions apart into traps and down cliffs. Tactics.
The sort of tactics I might use, if I had a smaller force and needed to kill any witnesses. Nico thought back to the twisted smile on watch captain Aurelius’s face, and the way that he and Maximus had talked quietly at the side of the fire. I’ll come back for you Aurelius, Nico thought as they slipped through the taller, more natural forests of upland Gaul.
“And I will avenge every death of those under my care.” Nico muttered. “By Jupiter and Mars, and before Pluto – I swear it.”
An intake of breath beside him. It was Taxon.
“You disapprove of vengeance, Taxon?” Nico asked, his voice thick with emotion.
“Oh no sire, revenge is about the only vice I have left these days’ sir – I disapprove of making any promises to the Gods – in case they were bloody listening!” He said with a light-hearted grin, but Nico got the centurion’s meaning.
Don’t make promises that you can’t keep. Nico shook his head, pointing at the track as it wound its way through the woods. “Come on. I want to be out from under these accursed mountains by nightfall!”
The journey through the rest of the woods that spread along the foothills of the mountains was long and, for the most part, quiet. Days passed as the trio crossed the occasional hunters’ track, or hut in the woods. They didn’t see another soul until they walked, surprised out of the forest to find a broad and straight Roman road, a gully and embankment on either side.
Neuvius was the first up, his gladius in his hand as he looked up and down. Strands of a wispy first beard had appeared on his chin, they had spent that long in the woods. Suddenly, he ducked, holding a hand out to the other two.
“People?” Taxon hissed. “Do they have flags? Weapons? Gaulish or Romans?”
Neuvius peered, waiting as he watched whomever only he could see as they disappeared further down the road. “Gaulish, I reckon.” The boy said after a while, when he was sure that they had gone. “They had them little ponies that the Gauls have. No standard.”
“War band?” Nico asked. “Or traders?” All of this lad was, after all, still the province of Gaul – only it had been annexed as a protectorate of the Roman Republic.
Neuvius shrugged. “I couldn’t tell sire, they didn’t have long spears.”
“But that doesn’t prove they were just farmers,” Nico agreed. “There’s nothing to tell the Gaulish farmers from the warriors.” He sighed, raising his eyes to pray to whichever God was listening today. After a moment, he nodded in the same direction that the men had taken. “Well – that way is Garrison of Sileni – and the only place that we’re going to find a horse and a messenger of our own.”
The men thought that their captain was eager to send a message back to Rome, perhaps by Runner or by pigeon – but the truth was, that he hadn’t stopped thinking about Lamphria – so far away for the past ten days.
I was attacked out here. What if my enemies aren’t just here? What if someone makes a move on Lamphria all alone, back in Rome?
The thought was driving him mad, as he urged his men into a quick march onward towards their goal.
Sileni. Its name was taken from one of the Gaulish tribes that had lived around here – perhaps still did, for all Nico knew. It was an out of the way Garrison in the Roman-held area of the north. It wasn’t in open rebellion or suffering revolt in the same way that Brittany was, further to the north – it was tucked eastward, along Gaul’s edge with the Black Forest. Out of the way and quiet. Not much was expected of it – save their tributes.
Nicodemus knew that the very idea of him and his two men demanding taxes from a rebel Garrison would be ridiculous. With only three of them, he wasn’t sure just what sort of response he could inspire. The word of one of Rome’s Tax Collector’s was usually regarded as law wherever they went – defying them meant defying the capital itself; the will of the Senate itself. If they disappeared, then a Legion would be dispatched to hunt for their bodies. If an unthinking Collector sought to steal the money that they had gathered for themselves – even the slightest amount – and they were to be dragged through the cobbled streets of Rome until all of the skin was scraped from their bodies.
Any Governor that sought to act against a Tax Collector would also be acting against the will of the Senate itself. They and their province would be erased to the ground.
But I am just one man, with one old centurion who can barely ride a horse, and one younger who can barely talk to a girl! Nico shook his head. He knew that he would just have to hope that the fear of the seal of the Republic would outweigh the greed of Governor Septimus.
As it turned out, Nico did not have to worry about the answer to that question, as he heard Taxon swear ahead of him. Nico looked up, to see a column of dark smoke rising into the air ahead of them.
“Oh hell.” Nico said, breaking out into a run. His thighs immediately exploded in agony at the sudden urgency, but there was no escaping it. His one chance of getting a message back to Lamphria was burning, right before his eyes.
“Wait, wait…” It was Taxon at Nico’s side, pulling his senior officer into the gully by the side of the road.
“What are you doing, man? How dare you!?” Nico turned, but saw the look of worry on the centurion’s face.
“Look!” Taxon was pointing at the burning palisade walls around the garrison town of Sileni, the churned up mud and snowy slush, the dark stains of something that looked suspiciously like blood, only there wasn’t a little of it. There was a lot. “You’re ain’t no use to the dead, Captain!” Taxon was hissing.
Nico nodded, breathed hard through his nose. “Okay. You’re right.” He said eventually, as the steps of Neuvius sounded, catching up with them. “We go in slow. We take no chances. We find out who did this…”
“Yes sire,” his men said, catching their breath and making their prayers.
When they were done, Nico nodded – they crept out of their hiding place, and into the ruined town. Taxon had been right – all who were left here were the dead, and the carrion. The gates were lying broken open, but Nico couldn’t see any sign of a forced entry. Treachery, perhaps? He thought, as they crossed into the central square, where already a mound of bodies was attracting the attentions of crows and foxes.
“Get away! Get away with you!” Neuvius said, his face as pale as if he had seen a ghost.
He’s got a lot to learn. Nico thought, leaving him to deal with the carrion. The bodies were a mixture of Gaul and Romano-Gaul. Most wore the thick, rough-spun woolen fibers in strong dyed colors that the local Guals made, whilst some wore the finer tunics, and carefully-tooled belts of those that had taken Romano fashion.
“Ca-Captain?” Said a voice, choked with emotion as a man stepped out of a hut. He was small, portly, with a bedraggled, mud and blood speared tunic around his body. An ugly wound split his lip – not bleeding anymore, but left without tending. The man still wore the small golden badge of laurel leaves that marked his office.
“Governor?” Nico demanded. “You are Governor Septimus? What happened here, by the gods!” Nico was walking toward the weak-looking man, who started to cry. “Answer me, man! In the name of the Republic, answer me!”
“I-I’m sorry…” Governor Septimus hung his head, as from the other doors of the burned out buildings stepped other, unharmed men. They were tall, mostly blonde, fit, and healthy, and wore the checks and colors of the heathen tribes.
“I had no choice – they would have killed me too…!” Lord Septimus as he was roughly pushed aside from behind by a tall heathen warrior, limping on one half-mangled leg. Nico didn’t quite recognize the man at first, until he saw the leer in the Gaulish heathen’s grinning eyes.
“The Boar?” Nico looked confused.
“Roman,” the bandit heathen known as the Boar, Wulfric ap Goarchaen spat, and levelled his own spear. “Maybe I’ll give you a pretty scar on your leg like you gave me?” the bandit said. “You should have killed me, centurion.”
Wulfric brought the wooden haft up quick, a swinging report that cracked against the Roman’s already injured forehead, felling him as if he were a tree.
“What about the others?” The other Gaulish barbarians laughed as they closed in on the centurions Taxon and Neuvius, speaking in their own heavy language.
“Clap them in irons, and take them to the Hole!” Wulfric laughed, giving the Tax Collector one more kick with his good leg.
“And, and me, your great, uhr, sir?” blabbered Lord Septimus, sprawled in the mud beside Captain Nicodemus.
“You?” Wulfric said carefully, a confused look on his face as if he couldn’t quite work out what the man was trying to say.
“Yes, the Governor of Sileni. You – you said that, as long as this was done that…. That, the tribute…” Lord Septimus tried to explain.
“Oh. That.” The Boar spun around, and with a backhanded slap that could be heard across the ruined town, struck Septimus senseless to the ground. “There’s all the tribute I will give you, roman!” Wulfric laughed, watching as his men dragged Neuvius, Taxon, and Nicodemus away.