THE ROAD TO ROME (Chapter I)Egypt
ALEXANDRIA, WINTER 48 BC
Get a move on, damn you," cried the optio, swiping the flat of his blade at the nearest legionaries' backs. "Caesar needs us!"
His squad of ten men needed little encouragement. Their night picket was positioned on the Heptastadion, the narrow, man-made causeway that ran from the docks to a long, thin island, separating the harbor into two parts. With water on both sides, it was an isolated position. Given what was happening, that was not a healthy place to be.
The yellow glow from the Pharos, the city's huge lighthouse, had been greatly augmented by the burning ships along the quay. Started by Caesar's men, the fire on the vessels had spread fast, reaching out to the nearby warehouses and library buildings to form a conflagration that lit up the scene as bright as day. After regrouping with their comrades who had been driven back into the darkened side streets, thousands of Egyptian troops were re-emerging to slam into Caesar's lines. These were less than a hundred paces away from the Heptastadion, the natural point to hold against an enemy.
Romulus and Tarquinius ran willingly alongside the legionaries. If the screaming mass of Egyptian soldiers broke through their lines, they would all be killed. Even if the Egyptians didn't succeed initially, the odds of surviving were poor. The legionaries were vastly outnumbered, and had no secure avenue of retreat. The whole city was swarming with unfriendly natives, and the causeway led to an island from which there was no escape. There were only the Roman ships, but thanks to the swarming enemy troops, embarking safely was not possible.
Grimacing, Romulus threw a longing glance at the one trireme that had got away. It was nearing the western harbor entrance, with Fabiola, his twin sister, on board. After nigh on nine years of separation, they had glimpsed each other a few moments previously. Fabiola was headed out to sea, escaping the danger, and there was nothing Romulus could do about it. Oddly, he was not devastated. He recognized why. Just knowing that Fabiola was alive, and safe, made his heart thrum with an unquenchable joy. With Mithras' help, she would have heard him yell that he was in the Twenty-Eighth Legion, and could thus find him one day. After all his prayers about his long-lost sister, the gods had answered.
Now, though, as so often before, he was about to fight for his life.
Press-ganged into the legions, he and Tarquinius were part of Caesar's small task force in Alexandria: a force under imminent threat of being overwhelmed. Romulus took some solace from his new and precarious position, however. If Elysium was waiting for him, then he would not enter it as a slave, nor a gladiator. Not as a mercenary, and not as a captive. Romulus squared his shoulders.
No, he thought fiercely, I am a Roman legionary. At last. My fate is my own, and Tarquinius will no longer control me. Not an hour past, his blond-haired friend had revealed that he was responsible for the killing which had originally forced Romulus to flee Rome. The shock of it was still sweeping through Romulus. Disbelief, anger and hurt swirled together in a toxic mix that made his head spin. He shoved the pain away, burying it for another time.
Breathing heavily, the group reached the back of Caesar's formation, which was only six ranks deep. Shouted orders, the metallic clash of arms and the screams of the wounded were suddenly very close. The optio conferred with the nearest officer, a nervous-looking tesserarius. Wearing a transverse-crested helmet and scale armor similar to the optio's, he bore a long staff to keep the legionaries in line. While he and other subordinates stayed at the rear to prevent anyone retreating, the centurions would be at, or near, the front. In a battle as desperate as this, these veteran career soldiers stiffened the resolve of all.
At length the optio turned to his men. "Our cohort is right here."
"Trust our luck," muttered one soldier. "Right in the middle of the damn line."
The optio smiled thinly in acknowledgment. This was where most casualties would fall. "You've got it easy for the moment. Be grateful," he said. "Spread out, two deep. Reinforce this century."
Grumbling, they did as he said.
With four others, Romulus and Tarquinius found themselves at the front of their two small files. They did not protest at this. As the new recruits, it was to be expected. Romulus was taller than most, and could see over men's heads and past the upright horsehair crests on their bronze-bowl helmets. Here and there a century standard jutted up into the air, and over on the right flank was the silver eagle, the emotive talisman of the legion. His heart raced at the sight of it, the greatest symbol of Rome, and one that he had grown to love dearly. More than anything, the eagle had helped Romulus to remember that he was a Roman. Imperious, proud and aloof, it cared nothing for men's status, recognizing only their bravery and valor in battle.
Beyond it, though, was a sea of snarling faces and glinting weapons, sweeping toward them in great rolling waves.
"They're carrying scuta," Romulus cried in confusion. "Are they Roman?"
"Once," spat the legionary to his left. "But the bastards have gone native."
"Gabinius' men then, I would say," said Tarquinius, receiving a gruff nod in response. There were curious stares, especially from those who could see the left side of his face. A prolonged torture session by Vahram, the primus pilus of the Forgotten Legion, had left a shiny red cicatrice on the haruspex' cheek in the shape of a knife blade.
Thanks to Tarquinius, Romulus was familiar with the story of Ptolemy XII, the father of the current rulers of Egypt, who had been deposed more than a decade before. Desperate, Ptolemy had turned to Rome, offering incredible sums in gold to restore him to the throne. Eventually, Gabinius, the proconsul of Syria, seized the opportunity. That had been at the same time that Romulus, Brennus, his Gaulish friend, and Tarquinius were traveling in Crassus' army.
"Aye," muttered the legionary. "They stayed here after Gabinius returned in disgrace to Rome."
"How many are left?" asked Romulus.
"A few thousand," came the answer. "But they've got plenty of help. Nubian skirmishers and Judaean mercenaries mostly, and Cretan slingers and archers. All tough bastards."
"There are infantry as well," said another man. "Escaped slaves from our provinces."
An angry growl met his words.
Romulus and Tarquinius exchanged a look. It was imperative their status, particularly that of Romulus, remained secret. Slaves were not allowed to fight in the regular army. To join the legions, which Romulus' press-ganging had effectively done for him, carried the death penalty.
"Those treacherous whoresons won't stand against us," the first legionary proclaimed. "We'll knock seven shades of shit out of them."
It was the right thing to say. Pleased grins cracked across worried faces.
Romulus held back his instinctive retort. Spartacus' followers, slaves all, had bettered the legions on numerous occasions. He himself was the match of any three ordinary legionaries. With a new homeland to defend, the enemy slaves could prove tough to defeat. This was not the time, nor the place, to mention such matters, though. When was? Romulus wondered with a tinge of bitterness. Never.
With ready weapons, they waited as the clash became more desperate. Showers of enemy javelins and stones flew into their lines, cutting down men here and there. Lacking shields, Romulus and Tarquinius could only duck down and pray as death whistled overhead. It was most disconcerting. As the casualties grew heavier, spare equipment became available. A stocky soldier in the rank ahead went down with a spear through the neck. Quickly Romulus pulled off the twitching man's helmet, feeling little remorse. The needs of the living were greater than those of the dead. Even the sweat-soaked felt liner that he jammed on his head first felt like some kind of protection. Tarquinius took the corpse's scutum, and it wasn't long before Romulus had his own one too, from another victim.
The optio grunted in approval. The two ragged wanderers did not just possess good weapons, they also knew their way around military equipment.
"This is more like it," said Romulus, lifting his elongated oval shield by its horizontal grip. Not since the Forgotten Legion's last battle four years before had they both been fully equipped. He scowled. It was still hard not to feel guilty about Brennus, who had died so that he and Tarquinius might escape.
"Seen combat before?" demanded the legionary.
Before Romulus could reply, a shield boss hit him in the back.
"Forward!" shouted the optio, who had shoved in behind them. "The line in front is weakening."
Pushing against the rows in front, they shuffled toward the enemy. Dozens of gladii, the Roman short stabbing swords, were raised in preparation. Shields were lifted until the only part of men's faces that could be seen was their flickering eyes under their helmet rims. They moved shoulder to shoulder, each protected by his comrades. Tarquinius was to Romulus' right and the talkative legionary was on his left. Both were responsible for his safety as he was for theirs. It was one of the beauties of the shield wall. Although Romulus was furious with Tarquinius, he did not think that the haruspex would fail in this duty.
He had not appreciated how thin their ranks had become. Suddenly the soldier in front slumped to his knees, and a screaming enemy warrior jumped into the gap, taking Romulus by surprise. He was wearing a blunt-peaked Phrygian helmet and a rough-spun tunic, with no armor. An oval spined shield and a rhomphaia, a strange sword with a long, curved blade, were his only weapons. This was a Thracian peltast, Romulus thought, shocked twice over.
Without thinking, he jumped forward, smashing his scutum boss at the other's face. The move failed as the Thracian met the attack with his own shield. They traded blows for a few moments, each trying to gain an advantage. There was none to be had and Romulus fast developed a healthy respect for his enemy's angled sword. Thanks to its shape, it could hook over the top of his scutum and around the sides to cause serious injury. In the space of a dozen heartbeats, he nearly lost an eye and then barely avoided a nasty injury to his left biceps.
In return, Romulus had sliced a shallow cut across the Thracian's sword arm. He grimaced with satisfaction. While the gash did not disable, it reduced the other's ability to fight. Blood oozed from the wound, running down onto the peltast's sword hilt. The man spat a curse as they cut and thrust at one another repeatedly, neither able to get past his opponent's shield. Soon Romulus saw that the Thracian could not lift his weapon without wincing. It was a little window of opportunity, and one he was not about to let slip.
Shoving his left leg and his scutum forward, Romulus swung his gladius over in a powerful, arcing blow that threatened to decapitate. The peltast had to meet it, or lose the right side of his face. Sending up a clash of sparks, the two iron blades met. Romulus' swept the other's down, toward the ground. A groan escaped the Thracian's lips and Romulus knew he had him. It was time to finish it, while his enemy's pain was all-consuming. Using his forward momentum, Romulus lunged forward, putting all his body weight behind the shield.
His power was too much for the peltast, who lost his footing and tumbled backward, losing his shield in the fall. In an instant Romulus was crouched over him, his right arm drawn back and ready. They exchanged the briefest of looks, similar to that which an executioner gives his intended victim; there is no response other than the widening of pupils. A quick downward thrust of Romulus' gladius and the Thracian was dead.
Jerking upright, Romulus lifted his scutum just in time. His enemy had already been replaced by an unshaven, long-haired man in Roman military dress. Another one of Gabinius' men.
"Traitor," hissed Romulus. "Fighting your own kind now?"
"I'm fighting for my homeland," growled the enemy soldier. His Latin proved Romulus' theory. "What the fuck are you doing here?"
Stung, he had no answer.
"Following Caesar," snarled the talkative legionary. "The best general in the world."
This was met with a sneer, and Romulus took his chance. He stabbed forward, thrusting his sword over the top of his distracted foe's mail shirt and deep into his neck. With a scream, the man dropped from sight, allowing Romulus to see the enemy lines briefly. He wished he hadn't. There were Egyptian soldiers as far as the eye could see and they were all moving determinedly forward.
"How many cohorts have we here?" asked Romulus. "Four?"
"Yes." The legionary closed up with him again. Thanks to their heavy casualties, they were now part of the front rank. With Tarquinius and the others, they prepared to meet the next onslaught, a combined wave of legionaries and lightly armed Nubians. "They're all under strength, though."
Their new enemies were clad only in loincloths; many wore a single long feather in their hair. The black-skinned warriors carried large oval hide shields and broad-bladed spears. Some, the more wealthy among them, wore decorated headbands and gold arm rings. These individuals also wore short swords tucked into their fabric belts and carried longbows. A quiver poked over each man's left shoulder. Knowing the limited range of the Roman javelin, they stopped fifty paces away and calmly fitted arrows to their strings. Their comrades waited patiently.
Romulus was relieved to see that the Nubians weren't using compound weapons, as the Parthians did. The shafts from those could penetrate a scutum with ease. It wasn't much consolation. "How weak are we, exactly?" he demanded.
"With the fifth cohort that's guarding our triremes, we number about fifteen hundred." The legionary saw Romulus' surprise. "What do you expect?" he snarled. "Many of us have been campaigning for seven years. Gaul, Britannia, Gaul again."
Romulus looked at Tarquinius grimly. These men were hardbitten veterans, but they were badly outnumbered. All he got was an apologetic shrug. He ground his teeth. They were only here because Tarquinius had ignored his advice, insistent on checking out the dock and the library. Still, he had seen Fabiola. If he died in this skirmish, it would be in the knowledge that his sister was alive and well.
The first volley of Nubian arrows shot up into the air, hissing down in a graceful, deadly shower.
"Shields up!" shouted the officers.
An instant later, the stream of enemy missiles struck their raised scuta with familiar thumping sounds. To Romulus' relief, almost none had the power to drive through, so few men were hit. His pulse increased, though, as he noticed some of the stone and iron arrowheads were smeared with a thick, dark paste. Poison! The last time he had seen that was when fighting the Scythians in Margiana. Even a tiny scratch from one of their barbed tips caused a man to die in screaming agony. Romulus felt even more glad of the scutum in his fist.
Another volley followed before the Nubians began trotting toward Caesar's lines. Unencumbered by heavy equipment such as the rogue legionaries were carrying, they quickly picked up pace. Screaming ferocious battle cries, the enemy warriors soon reached a sprint. They were followed by Gabinius' former soldiers, who would deliver the hammer blow. Romulus gritted his teeth and wished that Brennus were still with them. The enemy formation was at least ten ranks deep, while Caesar's lines now were barely half that.
Right on cue, the trumpets blew a short series of blasts. From the rear came the shouted order, "Retreat to the ships!" The voice was calm and measured, quite at odds with the urgency of the situation.
"That's Caesar," explained the legionary with a proud grin. "Never panics."
At once their lines began edging sideways, toward the western harbor. It was only a short distance, but they could not let down their guard at all. Seeing this attempt to escape, the Nubians yelled with anger and sprang forward again.
"Keep going," cried the centurion nearest Romulus. "Stop just before they hit. Stay in formation and drive them back. Then move on."
Romulus eyed the triremes, which numbered about twenty. There would be room on board for all--but where would they go?
As ever, Tarquinius butted in with the answer. "To the Pharos." He pointed at the lighthouse. "Over there, the Heptastadion is only fifty or sixty paces across."
His confidence restored, Romulus grinned. "We can defend that until doomsday."
Yet the ships were still out of reach and, a heartbeat later, the Nubians struck the Roman formation with such force that the front ranks were driven back several steps. Screams filled the night air and soldiers cursed the bad luck sent them by the gods. Romulus saw a legionary to his left take a spear through one calf and go down thrashing. Horrendously, another had a blade pierce both cheeks to emerge on the other side of his face. Blood jetted from the wounds as the weapon was withdrawn. Dropping his scutum and sword, the soldier raised both hands to his ruined face and let out a thin, piercing cry. Romulus lost sight of both injured men as a mass of Nubians slammed up against his section.
Angry red mouths shouted insults in a foreign tongue. Hide shields smacked off scuta and broad spear blades flickered back and forth, searching for Roman flesh. Romulus' nostrils were filled with the black warriors' musty body odor. Quickly he killed the first man within reach, sliding his gladius under the man's sternum in one easy move. His next opponent was no harder to dispatch; he practically ran on to Romulus' sword. The Nubian was dead before he'd even realized it.
On Romulus' right, Tarquinius was also dispatching warriors with ease, but to his left, the talkative legionary was struggling. Beset by two hulking Nubians, he soon took a spear through his right shoulder, which crippled him. He had no chance as one of his enemies pulled down his shield while the other stabbed him through the throat. It was the last thing the first Nubian did. Romulus lopped off his right hand, the one holding the spear, and with the backstroke opened the warrior's flesh from his groin to his shoulder. A legionary from the rank behind moved forward to fill the gap and together they killed the second warrior.
The dead were replaced immediately.
We need cavalry, thought Romulus as he fought on. Or some catapults. A different tactic to help their cause, which was growing desperate. Small numbers of legionaries had reached the triremes and were swarming aboard, but the majority remained trapped in a fight that they could not win. Panic flared in men's hearts and instinctively they moved backward. Centurions roared at them to stand fast, and the standard-bearers shook their poles, trying to restore confidence, but it was no good. More ground was given away. Scenting blood, the enemy redoubled their efforts.
Romulus did not like it. He could see the situation unraveling fast.
"Keep moving!" cried a voice from behind him. "Hold your formation. Take heart, comrades. Caesar is here!"
Romulus risked a look over his shoulder.
A lithe figure in gilded breastplate and red general's cloak was pushing through to join them. His horsehair-crested helmet was especially well wrought, with silver and gold filigree worked into the cheek pieces. Caesar was carrying a gladius with an ornate ivory hilt and an ordinary scutum. Romulus took in a narrow face with high cheekbones, an aquiline nose and piercing, dark eyes. Caesar's features reminded him of someone, but he had no time to dwell on the thought. He took heart from Caesar's calm manner, however. Like the centurions, he was prepared to put his life on the line, and where a leader like Caesar stood, soldiers would not run.
Struck, Tarquinius looked from the general to Romulus and back again.
Romulus was oblivious.
The news rippled through the ranks. At once the atmosphere changed, the panic dissipating like early morning mist. Disobeying orders, the reinvigorated legionaries surged forward again, catching the enemy unawares. Soon the lost ground had been regained, and there was a brief respite. With the ground between the lines littered with bloody bodies, writhing casualties and discarded weapons, both sides stood watching each other warily. Clouds of breath steamed the air and sweat ran freely from the felt liners under bronze helmets.
It was Caesar's moment.
"Remember our battle against the Nervii, comrades?" he asked loudly. "We won then, eh?"
The legionaries roared with approval. Their victory against the valiant tribe had been one of the hardest fought in the entire Gaulish campaign.
"And Alesia?" Caesar went on. "The Gauls were swarming over us like clouds of flies there. But we still beat them!"
Another shout went up.
"Even at Pharsalus, when no one gave us a chance in Hades," Caesar said dramatically, encompassing them all with his arms, "you, my comrades, gained victory."
Romulus saw real pride appear in men's faces; he felt their resolve stiffen. Caesar was one of them. A soldier. Romulus felt his own respect growing. This was a remarkable leader.
"Cae-sar!" bellowed a grizzled veteran. "Cae-sar!"
Everyone took up the cry, including Romulus.
Even Tarquinius joined in.
Caesar let his men cheer for a moment, and then began urging them toward the triremes once more.
They nearly made it. Intimidated by the Romans' counterattack and Caesar's bold words, the Egyptian troops held back for twenty heartbeats. Soon the edge of the dock was only a stone's throw away. Guided by sailors, hundreds more legionaries had embarked, and a good number of the low-slung ships had pushed out into the harbor. The three banks of oars on each dug down, pulling them into deeper water. Finally, furious that their foes were escaping, the enemy officers acted. Exhorting their men to finish what had been started, they charged forward, followed quickly by a roiling mass of soldiers that threatened only one thing. Annihilation.
"Spread out!" Caesar ordered. "Form a line in front of the triremes."
His men hurried to obey.
It was all too slow, thought Romulus with a thrill of dread. Maneuvers like this could not be done properly with an enemy host closing in from thirty paces away.
Tarquinius' gaze lifted to the starlit sky, searching for a sign. Where was the wind coming from? Was it about to change? He needed to know, but he was afforded no time.
An instant later, the Egyptians reached them. Attacking a force on the point of retreat was one of the best ways to win a battle, and they sensed it instinctively. Spears reached out, delivering the bloody kiss of death to legionaries who were turning to run. Gladii wielded by Gabinius' former soldiers stabbed through weakened links of mail, or into vulnerable armpits; they hammered the shields from their hands. Bronze helmets were smashed into bent pieces of metal and men's skulls cracked open. Humming overhead came sheets of arrows and showers of stones. Seeing the lethal pieces of rock, Romulus felt his heart sink. With enemy slingers in range, their casualties would soar.
Fear now distorted most legionaries' faces. Others threw terrified glances at the heavens and prayed aloud. Caesar's rallying shouts were in vain. There simply weren't enough of them to hold the Egyptians back. The fight became a frantic effort not to fold completely. Still Romulus hacked and slashed, holding his own. With an agility belying his years, Tarquinius was doing the same. The soldier who had joined Romulus on his left side was a skilled fighter too. Together they made a fearsome trio--yet it made little difference to the greater situation.
As the Roman lines moved backward, men died in growing numbers, which weakened the shield wall. At last it disintegrated, and screaming Nubians battered their way in. With their distinctive red cloaks and gilded breastplates, the centurions were targeted first, and their deaths further lowered morale. Despite Caesar's best efforts, the battle would soon become a rout. Sensing this, the general retreated toward the dock. Instantly fear mushroomed throughout his cohorts. Men were knocked over and trampled as their comrades ran for the perceived safety of the triremes. Others were knocked off the quay and into the dark water, where their heavy armor carried them under in the blink of an eye.
"We're not going to make it," shouted Tarquinius.
Romulus took a look over his shoulder. Only a few ships could be boarded at a time, and with the panicked legionaries unprepared to wait, the nearest ones were in real danger of being overloaded. "The fools," he said. "They'll sink." He refused to panic. "What can we do?"
"Swim for it," the haruspex replied. "To the Pharos."
Romulus shivered, recalling a previous time that they had escaped by water. Left behind on the bank of the River Hydaspes, Brennus had died alone. The shame of deserting his comrade had never quite gone away. Romulus forced himself to be practical. That was then, this is now, he thought. "Coming?" he asked the legionary to his left.
There was a terse nod.
As one, they shouldered their way past the confused and terrified soldiers surrounding them. In the confusion that now dominated, it was easy enough to break out of the battered Roman formation and make for the water's edge. They had to take extreme care. Slick with blood, the large stone slabs were festooned with body parts and discarded equipment. Leaving the burning warehouses farther behind, the trio were soon moving through semidarkness. Thankfully, the area was empty. The fighting was confined to the area around the triremes and the Egyptian commanders had not thought to send men west along the dock to prevent an escape.
Their oversight did not matter, thought Romulus, staring back at the slaughter. Wild panic had now replaced Caesar's men's earlier courage. Disregarding their officers' orders, they fought and scrambled to escape. He pointed at a trireme in the second rank from the quay. "That one is going to sink."
Raising a hand to his eyes, the legionary swore. "Caesar's on it!" he cried. "Damn the filthy Egyptians to Hades."
Romulus squinted into the light, finally seeing the general amid the throng. Despite the shouts of the trierarch--the captain--and his sailors, more and more soldiers were climbing aboard.
"Who'll lead us if he drowns?" cried their companion.
"Worry about him later. Let's survive ourselves first," replied Romulus tersely, stripping down to his ragged military tunic. At once he buckled his belt back on, thus retaining his sheathed gladius and his pugio, the dagger that served both as a weapon and a utensil.
Tarquinius did likewise.
The legionary looked from one to the other. Then, muttering dire imprecations, he copied them. "I'm not the best swimmer," he revealed.
Romulus grinned. "You can hold on to me."
"A man should know who's going to save his skin. I'm Faventius Petronius," he said, sticking out his right arm.
"Romulus." They gripped forearms. "He's Tarquinius."
There was no time for further niceties. Romulus jumped in, feet first, the haruspex behind him. Petronius shrugged his shoulders and followed. Their distance from the battle meant the three splashes went unnoticed. At once Tarquinius beat a diagonal path out into the harbor. They needed some light to see, but had to stay far enough out to avoid the enemy missiles. With Petronius holding on for dear life, Romulus took up the rear.
How good it would be to catch Fabiola's ship, he thought. It was long gone into the night, though, no doubt headed for Italy. The same destination he had been trying to reach for the last age. Despite his own predicament, Romulus did not give up all hope. Time and again, Tarquinius had said there was a road back to Rome for him. That dream was what kept him swimming. With each stroke, Romulus imagined arriving home and being reunited with Fabiola. It would feel like reaching Elysium. After that, there was unfinished business to be done. According to Tarquinius, their mother was long dead, but she still had to be avenged. Killing the merchant Gemellus, their former owner, was the way to do that.
A flurry of splashes, accompanied by shouts and cries, dragged Romulus' attention back to the present. Scores of legionaries were jumping off the outermost trireme, which was foundering under the weight of too many men. Their fate in the water was no better than on board. Most were immediately dragged under by their armor, while those who could swim were targeted by enemy slingers and archers already positioned on the Heptastadion.
Romulus winced at their plight, but there was little he could do.
Petronius' gaze was also fixed on the unfolding drama. A moment later, his grip tightened.
"Easy," Romulus snapped. "Trying to choke me?"
"Sorry," Petronius replied, relaxing his hold. "Look, though! Caesar's about to jump ship."
Romulus turned his head. Lit from behind by the blaze from along the eastern harbor, could be seen the agile figure that had rallied the legionaries earlier. No longer was he attempting to control his men. Caesar had to flee now too. Off came his transverse-crested helmet and red cloak, and then his gilded breastplate. Surrounded by a group of legionaries, Caesar waited until all were ready. Then, clutching a handful of parchments, he stepped off the side rail and into the sea. His men landed around him, sending fountains of water into the air. With a protective cordon established, Caesar began swimming toward the Pharos, keeping one hand up-raised to keep his paperwork dry.
"Mithras, he's got balls," Romulus commented.
Petronius chuckled. "Caesar is scared of nothing."
A flurry of arrows and stones splashed down nearby, reminding them that this was no place to linger. While the majority of the Egyptian soldiers continued to assail the cohorts stuck on the dock, others were hurrying onto the Heptastadion. From there they could send unanswered volleys at the helpless legionaries in the water.
Romulus was horrified by the slingers' accuracy. The light cast onto the calm surface of the harbor was not that bright. Since the swimmers were lower than the docks, and obscured to some extent by the Heptastadion, he had thought their journey would be reasonably safe. Not so. Fitting stones half the size of a hen's egg into their weapons, the slingers whirled them around their heads once or twice before letting fly. Perhaps two or three heartbeats went by before another shower was released. A third and a fourth followed in quick succession. Soon the air was filled with the missiles; jets and spouts of water rose up as they landed. Again and again, Romulus saw legionaries being struck on the head. He cringed at the final-sounding impacts. Either they killed on the spot or knocked the victims unconscious, whereupon they drowned. That was if an arrow didn't take them through the cheek or in the eye.
Soon the enemy slingers and archers needed more targets. Because of their decision to swim farther out, Caesar's group was still unscathed, like themselves. The status quo would not last, though. Thanks to the lack of Caesarean troops on the Heptastadion, the Egyptians could pursue them on a parallel course, raining death down with impunity.
"Faster," urged Tarquinius.
Splash, splash, splash. A torrent of missiles and rocks hit the water not twenty paces away, increasing Romulus' pulse. Petronius' breath grew ragged on his neck. They had been seen. He increased the speed of his strokes, trying not to look sideways.
"Those slingers can hit a bundle of straw at six hundred paces," muttered Petronius.
More stones landed, closer this time. Romulus' gaze was drawn inexorably to the sharply outlined enemy figures, reloading their slings. Laughter carried through the air as leather straps swung hypnotically around their heads and then released--again.
Thankfully, the island was at last drawing near. Caesar had emerged onto the shore and was already screaming orders, guiding his men to defend their end of the Heptastadion. Romulus breathed a tiny sigh of relief. Safety was beckoning, and doubtless there would be some respite once they threw the Egyptians back. When that happened, he would force Tarquinius to tell him everything about the fight outside the brothel.
Still in the lead, the haruspex turned to say something. His eyes met with those of Romulus, which were flinty and full of resolve. Tarquinius' voice died in his throat and they simply stared at each other. The silent exchange spoke volumes, and set off a host of warring emotions in Romulus' heart. I owe him so much, he thought, yet he's the damn reason I had to flee Rome. But for him, I would have had a different life. Remembering the plain wooden sword owned by Cotta, his old trainer in the ludus, Romulus scowled. A rudis like that could have been mine by now.
Tarquinius stood up. He had reached the shallows.
Shouts rang out from the frustrated slingers. Reloading their weapons, they redoubled their efforts to bring down the trio. Hastily released stones pattered down harmlessly behind them.
Romulus pushed his caligae downward, feeling mud squelch underfoot. Petronius let out a great sigh of relief. Two more strokes and he too was able to stand. The veteran released his grip and thumped Romulus across the shoulders. "My thanks, lad. I owe you one."
Romulus indicated the main force of Egyptians, which was massing for a full frontal attack along the Heptastadion. "There'll be plenty of opportunity to repay me."
"Get over here!" screamed a centurion, right on cue. "Every sword matters."
"Best do as he said," advised Tarquinius.
They were the last words he spoke.
With a hypnotic whirring sound, a rock flashed through the air between Romulus and Petronius. It smashed into the left side of Tarquinius' face, audibly breaking his cheekbone. His mouth opened in a silent scream of agony and, spun to one side by the force of the impact, he dropped backward into the waist-deep water. Half-conscious, he sank immediately.
THE ROAD TO ROME Copyright © 2011 by Ben Kane.