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A MONTH LATER …
THE APENNINE MOUNTAINS, NORTHEAST OF PISAE
Spartacus looked out over the flat ground at Gellius' legions, and then back at his own. Even though he was some hundred paces from the center of his front ranks, he could feel his men's confidence. It oozed from their very stance and the way their lines were swaying back and forth. Their weapons smacked off their shields, challenging the Romans to fight. They were eager, even desperate to begin the combat. It is a remarkable change. Until recently, his followers—the vast majority of them former slaves—had never fought a full-scale battle. Yes, they had defeated the forces of three praetors, but those clashes had been won in the main by subterfuge. They had never faced a large Roman army on open terrain, let alone a consular one of two legions. Two months previously, all that had changed when they had ambushed the consul Lentulus in a defile to the south of their present position.
Thanks to their succession of victories, the majority of his men were now as well equipped as the heavily armed legionaries. Pride filled him. How far they have come. He pictured the day a year and a half before when he'd been betrayed in his own village in Thrace and sold into slavery, his fate to die in an Italian gladiatorial arena. How far I have come. A Thracian warrior who fought for Rome, but who now leads an army of former slaves against it. It was ironic.
Striding closer to his soldiers, Spartacus caught the eye of a broad-shouldered man whose pleasant face was marred by a purple scar on his left cheek. One of the very first slaves to join us after we escaped from the ludus. "I see you, Aventianus! What hope have the Romans today, d'you think?"
Aventianus grinned. "Not a snowflake's chance in Hades, sir."
"That's what I want to hear." Spartacus had long since given up telling his men not to address him so. It made no difference. He scanned the faces of those nearest him. "Is Aventianus right, lads? Or will Gellius chase us home with our tails between our legs?"
"We have no homes!" roared Pulcher, Spartacus' main armorer and one of his senior officers. A burst of ribald laughter met his comment. He waited until the noise died down. "But we have something far better than roofs over our heads. Something that no one can ever take away. Our freedom!"
"Free-dom! Free-dom! Free-dom!" the men yelled, stamping their feet and hammering their weapons off their shields again. It made a deafening, stirring rhythm. The clamor began to spread through Spartacus' host. Most soldiers were too far away to know the reason for the uproar, but they didn't care. Soon the din made speech impossible. "Free-dom! Free-dom! Free-dom!"
Relishing the cries of nearly fifty thousand men, and the fact that he was their leader, Spartacus encouraged them with great waves of his arms. The uproar would raise their morale even higher, and create unease in plenty of Roman bellies. He did not doubt that it would send a tickle of fear up the skin of Gellius' wrinkled back. The consul was sixty-two years old, and reportedly had little experience of war.
"We'll smash the bastards into little pieces," cried Pulcher when the cheering had abated. "The same way we sent Lentulus and his lot packing!" Right on cue, the men holding the pair of silver eagles raised their wooden poles aloft. More shouting erupted.
Spartacus raised his hands, and a hush fell. "There are two more of those to be had today!" He drew his sica, a wickedly curved Thracian sword, and stabbed it at the places in Gellius' forces where bright sunlight flashed off his legions' metal standards. "Who wants to help me take them? Who wants the glory of saying that he took a Roman eagle in battle and, by doing so, shamed an entire legion?"
"Me!" roared Aventianus and a multitude of other voices.
"Are you sure?"
"YESSS!" they bellowed at him.
"You'd better be. Look at that lot." Spartacus swept his blade first to the left, and then to the right. On both fringes of his army, hundreds of men on shaggy mountain horses could be seen. "You'd better be sure," he repeated. "If we're not careful, the cavalry might get there before us." Part of Spartacus longed to be with them. He had been a cavalryman from the age of sixteen; he had also helped to train the horsemen, but he knew that his presence in the center of his host was vital. If his foot soldiers broke, complete defeat beckoned. Although his riders' task was huge, they outnumbered the Roman horse at least four to one. Even if—by some misfortune—they failed to rout the enemy cavalry, his infantry could still win the battle. "Are you going to let that happen?"
"Never!" roared Pulcher, the veins standing out in his neck.
"Not if I have anything to do with it!" shouted Aventianus, jabbing his pilum back and forth.
"And me!" Carbo, who was Roman, was still surprised by the passion he felt when the Thracian spoke. About a year before, he had entered the gladiator school in Capua in a madcap attempt to pay off his family's huge debts. In his desperation, he'd first tried to join the army, but had been turned down due to his youth. To Carbo's surprise, he'd been accepted by the lanista as an auctoratus, a citizen who contracted to fight as a gladiator, but only after his courage had been tested by fighting Spartacus in a contest with wooden weapons.
Life in the ludus had been unbelievably tough, and not just because of the training. One man alone, especially a rookie, had little hope of surviving on his own. If Spartacus hadn't taken him under his wing, Carbo's career in the ludus would have been short indeed. When the chance came to escape soon afterward, he had followed his protector. Subsequently given the unthinkable choice between leaving the motley group of slaves and gladiators or staying to fight his own countrymen, Carbo had opted for the latter. He hadn't known what else to do.
In the ensuing months, Spartacus' actions had earned Carbo's loyalty—and even love. The Thracian looked out for him. Cared for him. That was more than his own people had been prepared to do. This bitter pill had made it easier to fight against his own kind, but deep down, Carbo still felt some guilt at doing so. He regarded Gellius' lines with a clenched jaw. It's just another army to be swept aside, he told himself. Beyond them lie the Alps. Spartacus' plan was to lead them over the mountains, away from the Republic's influence. There any enemies they encountered would be foreign to him. And, if he had to admit it, easier to kill.
Before that, they had Gellius to defeat. He thought of Crassus, the man who had ruined his family and shattered his life. Hate surged through Carbo, made all the stronger by the knowledge that he'd never be revenged on the richest man in Rome. Instead he tried imagining that all the men opposite were related to the crafty politician. It helped.
His gaze was drawn back to the compact figure of Spartacus, clad in a polished mail shirt, gilded baldric and magnificent Phrygian helmet. To Carbo's surprise, the Thracian's piercing gray eyes caught his. Spartacus gave him a tiny nod, as if to say, "I'm glad that you're here." Carbo's shoulders went back. I'll do what I have to today.
Spartacus was making an appraisal of his men's mood. What he saw was pleasing. Organized into centuries and cohorts, trained and armed like the Romans, they were ready. He was ready. Here was another chance to shed Roman blood. To seize more vengeance for Maron, his brother who had died fighting the legions. The legions that had laid waste to their homeland, Thrace. I might yet see it again. Gellius and his men are about all that stand in the way. He half smiled. Kotys, the malevolent king of Spartacus' tribe, the Maedi, and the reason for his enslavement, would get the shock of his life when he returned. I can't wait. Spartacus placed the brass whistle that hung from a thong around his neck to his lips. When he blew, signaling the advance, the trumpeters would let the entire army know.
His plan was simple. He had arrayed his soldiers in two deep lines about thirty paces apart. Castus was in charge of the left wing: a Gaulish gladiator who had aided Spartacus in their escape; short, stubborn and with a temperament as fiery as his red hair. Gannicus, another Gaul from the ludus, commanded the right; he was as strong-willed as Castus, but more even-tempered, and Spartacus had more in common with him. At his signal, they would all move forward in one great bloc and, after throwing volleys of javelins, engage the Romans head on. If things went well, their superior numbers and high morale would quickly allow them to envelop Gellius' legions. This while their cavalry swept away the enemy horse and then took the legionaries in the rear. The Romans' defeat would be total, their casualties far higher than in any of the previous encounters.
By sunset, Rome will have learned another lesson. Great Rider, grant that it be so. Watch over us all in the hours to come, Spartacus prayed. Dionysus, lend us the strength of your maenads. While the Thracian hero god was his main guide in life, he had also learned to revere the deity associated with wine, intoxication and religious mania, whom his wife Ariadne worshipped. His remarkable dream, in which a venomous snake had wrapped itself around his neck, had marked him out as one of Dionysus' own. May it always be thus.
He filled his lungs and prepared to blow.
Tan-tara-tara-tara went the Roman bucinae.
Spartacus held his breath, waiting for the legions to advance.
The enemy trumpets sounded again, but nothing else happened.
What the hell is Gellius playing at?
To his surprise, a horseman emerged from a gap in the center of the Roman line. Not a legionary stirred as he guided his mount straight at Spartacus.
Spartacus' men were so keen to begin the fight that few noticed.
"Let's be having them!" shouted Pulcher to a roar of approval.
"Stay where you are!" ordered Spartacus. "Gellius has something to say. A messenger comes."
"What do we care?" cried a voice from the ranks. "It's time to kill!"
"You won't lose that opportunity. But I want to hear the rider's message." Spartacus gave his men a granite-hard stare. "The first fool who moves a muscle or throws a javelin will answer to me. Clear?"
"Yes," came the muted reply.
"I can't hear you!"
Spartacus watched the approaching horseman. I don't like it. Fortunately, he didn't have time to brood. Less than a quarter of a mile separated the two armies. As the Roman drew near, he slowed his horse, a fine chestnut, to a walk. He appeared unarmed. Spartacus noted his polished bronze cuirass, scarlet crested helmet and confident posture. This was a senior officer, probably a tribune, one of the six experienced men who assisted the consul in commanding each legion. "That's close enough," he called out when the envoy was twenty paces away.
Raising his right hand in a peaceful gesture, the Roman walked his mount several steps closer.
"Don't trust the bastard!" shouted Aventianus.
The Roman smiled.
Spartacus lifted his sica menacingly. "Come any nearer and I'll send you to Hades."
There was no acknowledgment, but at last the Roman tugged hard on his reins. "I am Sextus Baculus, tribune of the Third Legion. And you are?" His tone couldn't have been more patronizing.
"You know who I am. If you don't, you're a bigger sack of shit than you look."
Spartacus' men jeered with delight.
Baculus' face went bright red, and he bit back an angry response. "I have been sent by Lucius Gellius, consul of Rome. I—"
"We met his colleague Lentulus a few weeks back," Spartacus interrupted. "Did you hear about that little encounter?"
More gleeful cheers erupted. Baculus' mount's ears went back, and it skittered from side to side. The tribune regained control of it with a muttered curse. "You and this rabble of yours will pay dearly for that day," he snapped.
"Will we indeed?"
"I am not here to bandy words with slaves—"
"Slaves?" Spartacus twisted his head around. "I see no slaves here. Only free men."
The roar that went up this time was three times as loud as before.
"Listen to me, you Thracian savage," hissed Baculus. He lifted his left hand, which had been held down by his side. Drawing back his arm, he tossed a leather bag at Spartacus. "A present from Lucius Gellius and Quintus Arrius, his propraetor," he cried as it flew through the air.
Spartacus didn't like the meaty thump that the sack made as it landed by his feet, or the faint stench that reached his nostrils. He made no move to pick it up. He had an idea of what might be inside. A number of his scouts had gone missing over the previous weeks; he'd assumed that they had been captured by the Romans. Which one is this, I wonder? Poor bastard. He won't have had an easy death.
"Go on, take a look," Baculus sneered. "We've kept them packed in salt especially for you."
Not a scout then. I know who it is. "Have you anything else to say?"
"It can wait."
"You arrogant prick." The bag wasn't tied shut, so Spartacus upended it. He wasn't surprised that the first thing to fall out was a severed head, but didn't expect the man's hand that followed. Spartacus took in the blood-spattered blond hair, and his guts wrenched. He rolled over the head, which was partly putrefied. Granules of salt stuck to the eyeballs, the slack gray lips and the reddened stump of the neck. The once-handsome features were barely recognizable, but it was Crixus. There could be no doubt. The massive scar on the man's nose was sufficient proof. Spartacus had inflicted the wound on the Gaul himself. Their fight had been inevitable from the first time they'd met—and disliked—each other. Yet he was still sorry to see Crixus dead.
After they had fought, and Spartacus had defeated Crixus, the Gaul and his followers had joined him. They had played a big part in their escape from the ludus. A dangerous and aggressive fighter, Crixus had been a thorn in Spartacus' side, questioning his leadership and constantly trying to gain Castus' and Gannicus' support. Crixus had broken away from the main army after a battle at Thurii in which they had vanquished the praetor Publius Varinius. Between twenty and thirty thousand men had gone with him. Spartacus had heard rumors since of their progress through central Italy, but had had no further contact. Until now. This grisly trophy didn't bode well for the fate of the men who had followed Crixus, but Spartacus kept his face impassive. "He didn't deserve to be treated like this."
"Did he not?" cried Baculus. "Crixus"—he smiled at the shocked reactions of Spartacus' men—"yes, that's who it is. Crixus was nothing but a murdering slave who maimed brave Roman soldiers for no good reason. He deserved everything that was done to him and more."
Spartacus remembered how Crixus had ordered the hands of more than twenty legionaries at Thurii to be amputated. He had been disgusted but unsurprised by the Gaul's act. The Romans wouldn't forgive—or forget—such a deed. "You did this to his corpse! Crixus would never have been taken alive," he shouted. His inclination was to slay Baculus on the spot, to prevent him from delivering his message, but the man was an envoy, and brave too. It had taken balls to ride up to his army, alone and unarmed.
"Crixus went to Hades knowing that more than two-thirds of the scum who trailed in his wake had died with him," announced Baculus. He raised his voice. "Do you hear me, you whoresons? Crixus is dead! DEAD! So are more than fifteen thousand of his followers! One in ten of the prisoners that we took had their right hands chopped off. Be certain that one of those fates awaits you all here today!"
After hearing the name "Crixus," Carbo was deaf to the rest of Baculus' threats. His world had just closed in around him. Crixus is dead? Jupiter be thanked. Dionysus be thanked! This had been one of his most fervent prayers; one that he had thought would never be answered. At the sack of a town called Forum Annii some months before, Crixus and two of his cronies had raped Chloris, Carbo's woman. Spartacus had helped to save her, but she had died of her injuries a few hours later. Incandescent with grief, Carbo had been set on killing Crixus, but Spartacus had asked him to swear that he would not. At the time the Gaul had still been a vital leader of part of the slave army. It was a request that Carbo had reluctantly agreed to.
Yet when Crixus had announced that he was leaving, thereby releasing Carbo from his promise, he had done nothing—because the Gaul would have carved him into little pieces. Telling himself that Chloris would have wanted him to live had worked thus far, but staring at Crixus' rotting head, Carbo knew that he'd simply been scared of dying. The immense satisfaction that he now felt, however, outweighed any concerns that he had about being slain in the impending battle. The whoreson died aware that he failed—that's what matters.
Spartacus could tell without looking the level of dismay that Crixus' head and Baculus' news had caused among his men. He raised his sica and moved toward the tribune. "Fuck off. Tell Gellius that I'm coming for him! And you."
"We'll be ready. So will our legions," Baculus replied stoutly. He cupped a hand to his mouth. "My men are hungry for battle! They will slaughter you in your thousands, slaves!"
Spartacus darted in and dealt Baculus' steed a great slap across its rump with the flat of his blade. It leaped forward so suddenly that the tribune almost lost his seat. Cursing, he sawed on the reins and managed to bring it under control again. Spartacus jabbed his sica at him. With a glare, Baculus turned his mount's head toward his own lines.
"Count yourself lucky that I honor your status," Spartacus shouted.
Stiff-backed, Baculus rode silently away. He did not look back.
Spartacus spat after him. I hope they're not all as brave as he. Putting Baculus from his mind, he turned to his men. Fear was written large on many faces. Most looked less confident. An uneasy silence had replaced the raucous cheering and weapon clashing. It was changes in mood like this that could lose a battle: Spartacus had seen it before. I have to act fast. Stooping, he picked up Crixus' mangled head and brandished it at his soldiers. "Everyone knows that Crixus and I didn't get on."
"That's putting it mildly," shouted Pulcher.
This raised a laugh.
Good. "While we weren't friends, I respected Crixus' courage and his leadership. I respected the men who chose to leave with him. Seeing this"—he held Crixus' head high—"and knowing what happened to our comrades makes me angry. Very angry!"
A rumbling, inarticulate roar met his words.
"Do you want vengeance for Crixus? Vengeance for our dead brothers-in-arms?"
"YES!" they bellowed back at him.
"VENGE-ANCE!" Spartacus twisted to point his sica at the legions. "VENGE-ANCE!"
He let them roar their fury for the space of twenty heartbeats. Happy then that their courage had steadied, he blew his whistle with all of his might. The sound didn't carry that far, but the well-trained trumpeters were watching him. A series of blasts from their instruments put an abrupt end to the shouting.
Spartacus shoved Crixus' head and hand back into the bag. If he left the remains where they were, he'd never find them again. Crixus—or at least these parts of him—deserved a decent burial. He tied the heavy sack to his belt and asked the Great Rider not to let it hinder him in the fight to come. With that, he resumed his place in the front rank. Smiling grimly, Aventianus handed him his scutum and pilum. Carbo, together with Navio, the Roman veteran he'd recruited to their cause, nodded their readiness. Taxacis, one of two Scythians who, unasked, had become his bodyguards, bared his teeth in a silent snarl. "Forward!" shouted Spartacus. "Keep in line with your comrades. Maintain the gaps between ranks."
They moved forward in unison, thousands of feet tramping down the short spring grass. On the wings, Spartacus' cavalry whooped and cheered, urging their horses from a walk into a trot. "Gellius' riders will be pissing their pants at the sight of that lot," cried Spartacus. His nearest men cheered, but then the Roman bucinae sounded. The legionaries were advancing.
"Steady, lads. Ready javelins. We throw at thirty paces, no more." Spartacus' stomach twisted in an old and familiar way. He'd felt the same mix of emotions before every battle that he'd ever fought. A snaking trace of fear that he wouldn't survive. The uplifting thrill of marching side by side with his comrades. Pride that they were men who would die for him in an instant—as he'd do for them. He gloried in the smells of sweat and oiled leather, the muttered prayers and requests of the gods, the clash of javelins off shields. He gave thanks to the Great Rider for another opportunity to wreak havoc on the forces of Rome, which had repeatedly sent its armies to Thrace, where they had defeated most of the tribes, laid waste to innumerable villages and killed his people in their thousands.
Before he'd been betrayed and sold into slavery, Spartacus' plan had been to unite the disparate groupings of Thracians and throw the legions off their land forever. In the ludus, such ideas had been nothing more than fantasy, but life had changed the day he and seventy-two others had smashed their way to freedom. Spartacus' heart pounded with anticipation. He had proved that almost anything was possible. After Gellius' soldiers had been defeated, the road to the Alps lay open.
He squinted at the line of approaching legionaries, now making out individual men's features. "Fifty paces! Do not loose! Wait until I give the order."
Several javelins were hurled from the Roman ranks. Scores more followed. The enraged shouts of centurions ordering their soldiers to cease throwing could be heard as the pila thwacked harmlessly into the earth between the two armies. Spartacus laughed. Only a handful of his men had responded by launching their own missiles. "See that? The Roman dogs are nervous!"
Cheers rose from his troops.
Tramp, tramp, tramp.
Sweat slicked down Carbo's forehead and into his eyes. He blinked it away, focusing his gaze on a legionary directly opposite him. The soldier was young—similar in age to him in fact—and his smooth-cheeked face bore an expression of unbridled fear. Carbo hardened his heart. He chose his side. I chose mine. The gods will decide which of us survives. Carbo steadied his right arm, making sure that his javelin was balanced. He took aim at the legionary.
"Forty paces," Spartacus called out. "Hold steady!" He selected his target, the nearest centurion in the Roman front rank. If by some good fortune the officer went down, resistance in that section of the line would falter or even crumble. He frowned. Why hadn't the legionaries thrown their pila yet? Gellius must have ordered his soldiers not to act until the last moment. A risky tactic.
Thirty-five paces. With increasing excitement, Spartacus counted down the last five steps and then roared, "Front three ranks, loose!" Drawing back his right arm, he heaved his javelin up into the blue sky. Hundreds of pila joined it, forming a dense, fast-moving shoal that briefly darkened the air between the armies before it descended in a lethal rain of sharp metal. The Roman officers roared at their men, ordering them to raise their shields. Spartacus' lips peeled up with satisfaction as he watched. Slow. They were too slow. His men's javelins hammered down, rendering scores of scuta unusable, but also plunging deep into the flesh of legionaries who hadn't obeyed orders fast enough. It was rare for javelin volleys to be so effective. Seize the chance. "Throw your second pilum," he yelled. The instant that those missiles had been thrown, "Front three ranks, drop to one knee." He glanced to either side, and was pleased to see that the nearest officers were copying his command. The trumpeters quickly relayed the order along the line. "Ranks four, five and six, ready javelins. On my order—RELEASE!"
A third shower of pila went soaring up in a low, curving arc. To his left and right, countless more missiles joined them. Spartacus could not see any Roman javelins being thrown in response. The legionaries were in considerable disarray. With luck, his cavalry were causing mayhem on the flanks. Burning hope filled him, and he ordered a fourth volley. "On your feet! Draw swords. Close order!"
Smoothly, his men in the front ranks moved to stand shoulder to shoulder. They slammed their shields off one another while the soldiers in the subsequent rows ran in right behind, using their scuta to strengthen the line.
The instant that they were ready, Spartacus roared, "CHARGE!"
In a screaming mass, they thundered toward the Romans. An occasional javelin scudded at them, but there was no concerted response. Spartacus had seen his pilum strike the centurion in the chest, punching him backward on to the shield of the man behind. He had no idea where his second javelin had gone, but that didn't matter. What mattered was hitting the Romans as hard as was humanly possible. They covered the last few steps in a blur. Time lost all meaning for Spartacus. He stuck close to the soldiers on either side of him; tried not to lose his footing; killed or disabled his opponents in the swiftest ways he could. At times the swinging bag containing Crixus' head and hand threatened to unbalance him, but Spartacus learned to anticipate its movements. His burden fed his rage, his hatred of Rome. Crixus and his men must be avenged.
He fought on. Punch with the shield boss; watch his enemy pull his head back in reflex. Stab him in the throat. Lift the shield to avoid the hot wash of blood that jetted as he withdrew his sica. Check left and right to make sure his comrades were all right. Search for a new target. Thrust him through the belly. Watch him crumple in agony. Brace with the scutum. Rip the sword free. Step over the shrieking mess that had been a man. Scream like a maniac. Parry a legionary's frantic hack with his shield. Slide his blade over the top of the other's scutum, taking him straight in the mouth. Hear the choking scream of agony cut short. Feel the iron catch in the Roman's neck bones. Watch the light in his eyes go out like a snuffed lamp. Push forward. Kill another soldier. Tread on his corpse. Look for another enemy to slay. And another.
On and on it went.
Suddenly, there were no more legionaries facing him.
Spartacus scowled. His bloodlust was not even close to sated. He became aware of someone shouting in his ear. Bemused, he turned his head and recognized Taxacis' squashed nose. "Eh?"
"Romans … run."
The red mist coating Spartacus' vision began to recede. "They're running?"
Taxacis laughed. "Yes. Look!"
This time what Spartacus saw made sense. The entire center of Gellius' line had given way, and was fleeing the field. Hundreds of legionaries lay all around them, dead, dying or screaming from the agony of their wounds. Discarded weapons and shields littered the area. The consul had vanished. Here and there, however, small pockets of his men fought on. Often they were defending a standard, but their heroic efforts made little difference to the yelling hordes of Spartacus' soldiers who surrounded them. To either side, the legions were holding, but that wouldn't be the case for long, he saw. Already his horsemen were in sight to the rear of the Roman position, which meant that the enemy cavalry had been driven off. Gellius' flanks would not withstand a charge from behind. No troops in the world could do that. "We've won," he said slowly. "Again."
"Thanks to you!" Taxacis clouted him on the back. Spartacus could see the awe in his eyes. "You not just … good general. You also fine … warrior. Romans thought … a demon had come." Grinning fiercely, he raised a fist in the air. "SPAR-TA-CUS!"
Every man within earshot took up the refrain.
"SPAR-TA-CUS! SPAR-TA-CUS! SPAR-TA-CUS!"
Spartacus' euphoria faded a little as he remembered those who had died to bring them to this point. Seuthes and Getas, his Thracian brothers-in-arms. Oenomaus, the charismatic German who had been first to lend his support when Spartacus had come up with the idea of escaping the ludus. Hundreds upon hundreds of men whose names he didn't even know. I shall always honor you. He looked down at the bag suspended from his waist. Even you. "We must not forget Crixus, and all of his followers who died."
"Crixus was … bastard," growled Taxacis, "but he was … brave bastard."
"He was," agreed Spartacus. He glanced at the nearest group of legionaries, who had thrown down their arms and were trying to surrender. Few were succeeding. Normally he wouldn't have cared, but inspiration struck. "Spare their lives," he shouted. "Gather the men who wish to yield, and bring them to our camp."
Taxacis threw him a confused look.
"You'll see later." Spartacus did not elaborate. The plan was still taking shape in his mind.
* * *
From the moment that Spartacus had led his army out of the vast camp that morning, Ariadne had kept herself busy. First she had sacrificed a cock to Dionysus, promising the god the further offering of a fine bull if her husband emerged unscathed—and victorious—from the impending battle. Ariadne had made no attempt to enter the trancelike state that sometimes allowed her to commune with Dionysus. Years as a priestess had taught her never to expect insight or a vision when it really mattered. The god whom she followed was even more fickle than his fellow deities. Her best policy once she had made her requests of him was to occupy her mind with other matters.
There was no chance of watching the battle. Unsurprisingly, Spartacus had forbidden it, and the constant presence of Atheas, the second of his Scythians, meant that any attempt to disobey him would meet with swift failure. Yet she couldn't just wait around, worrying and lamenting, as some of the other women did. I might be pregnant, but that doesn't mean I can't be useful. Being busy helped her to ignore the occasional faint sound of trumpet calls that carried through the air.
She was only four months gone. Ariadne had thus far managed to conceal her rounded belly and larger breasts by wearing loose dresses and bathing out of the sight of others. From the recent glances that she'd been getting, though, Ariadne knew that it wouldn't be long before word got out that she was expecting Spartacus' child. That was if her glossy black hair and the bloom on her creamy skin granted her by her pregnancy had not already given the game away. There were other signs too. She had noticed in her bronze mirror that her heart-shaped face had grown softer and more attractive. Enjoy it while it lasts, she thought.
A thrill of joy shot through her as she pictured herself holding a strong baby boy while her smiling husband looked on. It was instantly followed by a familiar, snaking dread. What if her interpretation of Spartacus' dream was incorrect? What if he was destined to die in battle against the Romans? Today? Stop thinking like that. He will win. We will cross the Alps while it's still summer. Get out of Italy altogether. She felt happier at that thought. Few tribes would dare to hinder the passage of his army—even if it was depleted—and they would make their way to Thrace. I cannot wait to see Kotys' face, she thought vengefully. He will pay for what he did to us. So will Polles, the king's champion.
"Enough daydreaming," she said to herself. "Do not tempt fate."
Atheas, who was stacking a pile of bandages, looked up. "What?"
"Nothing." Gods willing, my hopes will come to pass. Ariadne counted the heaped rolls of linen by his feet. They would serve to dress the hideous wounds they'd soon be seeing. "Five hundred. Not nearly enough." Her eyes moved to the score of women who were ripping up sheets, tunics and dresses into dressings of various sizes. To her relief, the heaps of garments by their feet were still sizeable. "Faster. We may well need all of those." Ariadne wasn't surprised when the women ducked their heads and their conversation petered away to an occasional whisper. As Spartacus' wife, she was respected, but the fact that she was also a priestess of Dionysus elevated her status close to his. Slaves held the god in especial esteem. I am part of the reason that Spartacus has so many followers, she thought with pride. Long may that continue.
Putting everything other than preparations to receive the injured from her mind, Ariadne embarked on a patrol of the hospital area, which had been positioned on the edge of the camp nearest the battlefield. She checked that the surgeons and stretcher-bearers were ready, that supplies of wine for the wounded were plentiful and ordered that another fifty makeshift beds be made up. The whole process didn't take nearly as long as she would have wished. When it was done, her worries returned with a vengeance. She glanced at the sun, which had reached its zenith. "They've been gone for four hours."
"That not … long time," pronounced Atheas, making an attempt to sound reassuring, which failed utterly.
Ariadne groaned. "It feels like an eternity."
"Battle could … last … whole day."
She racked her brains for something to do, a task that would prevent her from agonizing over the worst possible outcomes for Spartacus and his men.
Tan-tara-tara. Ariadne jumped. The trumpet sound was near. No more than a quarter of a mile away. Fear coursed through her veins. "Is that the—"
Atheas finished her question. "Romans?"
"Not … sure." Atheas cocked his head and listened.
Tan-tara-tara. Tan-tara-tara. The trumpets were a little closer now, allowing Ariadne to discern the irregular blasts and off-tone notes. Her heart leaped with exhilaration, and she barely heard Atheas say "Roman trumpeters … play better." Then they have won! Let him be alive, Dionysus. Please. Ariadne didn't run to meet the returning soldiers as she had after the battle against Lentulus. Instead she walked as calmly as she could to the start of the track that Spartacus and his men had used that morning. Atheas trailed her, shadowlike. The pair were followed by almost everyone—a crowd made up of women. Loud prayers for the safe return of their menfolk filled the air.
Ariadne's only concession to her inner turmoil was to clench her fists, unseen, by her sides. Atheas' tattooed face, as ever, was impassive.
When the cheering mob of soldiers rounded the bend and she saw Spartacus, uninjured, among them, Ariadne's knees buckled with relief. She was grateful for Atheas' hand, which gripped her arm until she regained her strength. "They've done it again."
"He is … great leader."
Ariadne let the women stream past toward their men, waiting until Spartacus reached her. Taxacis, who was with him, called out happily to Atheas in his guttural tongue. Carbo nodded at Ariadne, who was so pleased that she almost forgot to respond.
Without being told, Spartacus' men moved away from her, allowing them some privacy. They chanted his name as they went, and Ariadne could see their fierce love for him in their eyes. Spartacus was carrying his helmet under one arm and, like his soldiers, he was spattered from head to toe in gore. It gave him an aura of invincibility, she thought: that somehow, amid the madness and destruction of battle, he had not only killed his enemies but led his men to victory, and survived. Amid the crimson coating his face, his gray eyes were still striking. There was a glowing rage in them, however, that held Ariadne back from doing what she wanted, which was to throw herself into his arms. "You won."
"We did, thank the Rider. Our volleys of javelins caught them unawares, and they never recovered from our initial charge. Their center broke. Our cavalry swept their horse away, and then took their flanks in the rear. It was a complete rout."
"You don't seem that happy. Did Gellius get away?"
"Of course. He ran like a rat escaping a sinking ship. But I don't really care about him." Spartacus tapped the bag hanging from his waist. "It's this, and what it means."
Ariadne caught the whiff of decaying flesh, and her stomach turned. "What is it?"
"All that's left of Crixus," Spartacus grated. "His head and his right hand."
Horror engulfed Ariadne. "How—"
"Before the battle began, a conceited bastard of a tribune rode up and tossed them down in front of me. Gellius wanted it to panic our men, and it did. I rallied them, though. Fired their anger. Offered them revenge for those who had fallen."
"Was it many?"
"More than half of Crixus' army." Spartacus' eyes lost focus. "So many lives lost unnecessarily."
Ariadne just felt grateful that Spartacus was alive. "They left of their own free will."
It was as if he hadn't heard her. "I intend to hold a funeral in their remembrance tonight. There will be an enormous fire, and before it, we shall watch our own munus." He saw her inquiring look. "But the men who'll take part won't be slaves or gladiators. Instead, they'll be free men. Roman citizens. I think Crixus would like that. My soldiers certainly will. An offering of this magnitude will please the Rider God and Dionysus. It should ensure that our path to the north remains open."
"They'll fight to the death?"
He barked an angry laugh. "Yes! I thought four hundred would be a good number. They can fight each other in pairs. The two hundred who survive the first bouts will face one another; then the one hundred, and so on, until a single man is left standing. He can carry the news to Rome."
Ariadne was a little shocked. She had never seen Spartacus so ruthless. "You're sure about this?"
"I have never been surer. It will show those whoresons in Rome that we slaves can do as we wish. That we are in every way equal to them."
"They won't think that. They'll just think that we are savages."
"Let them think what they will," he responded sharply. Spartacus' battle rage had been replaced by a cold, merciless fury. It was a feeling that descended upon him occasionally. When Maron, his brother, had died in screaming agony, his body racked with the poison from a gut wound. When Getas, one of his oldest friends, had run onto a blade meant for him. And most recently, just before the battle against the consul Lentulus. He took a deep breath, savoring his icy anger. At that very moment, Spartacus would have slain every Roman who existed. That is the only way they will learn to respect me, he thought. To fear me. The munus will be a start.
"The humiliation will enrage the Romans. They will gather their legions and come after you again."
"We'll be long gone," he asserted.
Thank all the gods. Ariadne had been worried that this latest success would change his decision to leave Italy. With luck, my son will be born in Gaul, or even Illyria. She clung to that hope for dear life.
Copyright © 2012 by Ben Kane