EASTERN MARGIANA, WINTER 53. 52 bc
A good mile from the fort, the Parthians finally came to a halt. When the steady crunch of boots and sandals on frosty ground ceased, an overwhelming silence descended. Quiet coughs and the jingle of mail fell away, absorbed by the freezing air. Darkness had not quite fallen, allowing Romulus to take in their destination: a nondescript cliff face of weathered, gray- brown rocks that formed the end of a range of low hills. Peering into the gathering gloom, the powerfully built young soldier tried to see what had brought the warriors here. There were no buildings or structures in sight, and the winding path they had been following appeared to come to a dead end at the cliff’s foot. Raising an eyebrow, he turned to Brennus, his friend and surrogate father. “What in Jupiter’s name are we doing here?”
“Tarquinius knows something,” grunted Brennus, hunching his great shoulders under his thick military cloak. “As usual.”
“But he won’t tell us!” Romulus cupped his hands and blew on them, trying to prevent his fingers and face from going completely numb. His aquiline nose already was.
“It’ll come out eventually,” the pigtailed Gaul replied, chuckling.
Romulus’s protest died away. His eagerness would not speed things up. Patience, he thought.
Against their skin, the two men wore cloth jerkins. Over these, standard-issue mail shirts. While affording good protection against blades, the heavy iron rings constantly drained away their body heat. Woollen cloaks and scarves and the felt liners under their bronze bowl-shaped crested helmets helped a little, but their calf-length russet trousers and heavy studded caligae, or sandals, exposed too much fl esh to allow any comfort.
“Go and ask him,” urged Brennus with a grin. “Before our balls drop off .”
They had both demanded an explanation from the Etruscan haruspex when he’d appeared in their fuggy barrack room a short time earlier. Typically, Tarquinius gave away little, but he had muttered something about a special request from Pacorus, their commander. And the chance of seeing if there was a way out of Margiana. Unwilling to let their friend go off alone, the pair also jumped at the chance of some information.
The last few months had provided a welcome break from the constant fighting of the previous two years. Gradually, however, their life in a Roman fort turned into a numbing routine. Physical training followed guard duty; the repair of equipment replaced parade drill. Occasional patrols provided little in the way of excitement. Even the tribes that raided Margiana did not campaign in winter weather. Tarquinius’s offer therefore seemed heaven- sent.
Yet Romulus’s purpose tonight was more than simple thrill-seeking. He was desperate for even the briefest mention of Rome. The city of his birth now lay on the other side of the world, with thousands of miles of harsh landscape and hostile peoples in between. Was there any chance he might return there one day? Like nearly all his comrades, Romulus dreamed of that possibility day and night. Here, at the ends of the earth, there was nothing else to hold on to, and this unexplained excursion might provide a sliver of hope.
“I’ll wait,” he replied at length. “After all, we volunteered to come.” He stamped resignedly from foot to foot. Suspended by a leather carrying strap, his elongated oval shield, or scutum, swung off his shoulder with the movement. “And you’ve seen the mood Pacorus is in. He’d probably cut my balls off for just asking. They’re better freezing.”
A laugh rumbled in Brennus’s throat.
Short and swarthy, Pacorus was at the head of the party, dressed in a richly decorated jerkin, trousers, and ankle boots, with a conical Parthian hat and a long bearskin cloak to keep him warm. Under the fur, a delicate gold belt circling his waist had two curved daggers and a jewel-hilted sword slung from it. A brave but ruthless man, Pacorus led the Forgotten Legion, the remnants of a huge Roman army defeated the previous summer by the Parthian general Surena. Together with Tarquinius, the friends were now merely three of its rank- and-filers.
Once more, Romulus was a captive.
It was ironic, he thought, that his life should be spent exchanging one master for another. First it had been Gemellus, the brutal merchant who owned his entire family—Velvinna, his mother, Fabiola, his twin sister, and himself. Falling on hard times, Gemellus had sold Romulus at thirteen to Memor, the lanista of the Ludus Magnus, Rome’s largest gladiator school. Although less casually cruel than Gemellus, Memor’s sole business was training slaves and criminals to fight and die in the arena. Men’s lives meant nothing to him. At that memory, Romulus spat. To survive in the ludus, he had been forced to end a man’s life. More than once. Kill or be killed: Brennus’s mantra rang in his ears.
Romulus checked that his short, double-edged gladius was loose in its scabbard, that the bone- handled dagger on the other side of his belt was ready for use. The actions were second nature to him now. A grin creased his face as he caught Brennus doing the same. Like all Roman soldiers, they also carried two iron- headed javelins, or pila. Their companions, a score of Pacorus’s best warriors, stood in marked contrast to them. Clad in simpler versions of their se nior’s clothing, and with a slit-sided woollen cloak rather than a thick fur one, each man was armed with a long knife and a slim case that hung from his right hip. This was large enough to carry his recurved composite bow and a supply of arrows. Proficient with many weapons, the Parthians were first and foremost a nation of highly skilled archers. It was fortunate that he had met none of them in the arena, thought Romulus. All were able to loose half a dozen shafts in the time a man could run a hundred paces. And every one accurate enough to kill.
Fortunately, the ludus was also where he had met Brennus. Romulus threw him a grateful look. Without the Gaul’s friendship, he would have soon succumbed to the savage life. Instead, over two years had passed with only a single life- threatening injury. Then, late one night, a street brawl had gone horribly wrong, and the friends had had to flee Rome together. Joining the army as mercenaries, the general Crassus had become their new master. Politician, millionaire, and member of Rome’s ruling triumvirate, he was desperate for the military recognition possessed by his two colleagues, Julius Caesar and Pompey Magnus. Arrogant fool, thought Romulus. If he’d been more like Caesar, we’d all be home by now. Instead of fame and glory, Crassus led thirty-five thousand men to a bloody, ignominious defeat at Carrhae. The survivors—about one- third of the army—had been taken prisoner by the Parthians, whose brutality outstripped even that of Memor. Given the stark choices of having molten gold poured down their throats, being crucified, or serving in a border force on Parthia’s unsettled eastern frontier, Romulus and his comrades had naturally chosen the last.
Romulus sighed, no longer so sure that their choice had been correct. It seemed they would spend the rest of their lives fighting their captors’ historical enemies: savage nomadic tribes from Sogdia, Bactria, and Scythia.
He was here to find out if that miserable fate could be avoided.
Excerpted from The Silver Eagle by Ben Kane.
Copyright © 2009 by Ben Kane.
Published in March 2010 by St. Martin’s Press.
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