Yes, starting Monday will be the latest in the Marcus Aegius series of books. The working title is “A Tribune Goes North.” Once again Emperor Probus has called on Tribune Aegius’s talents to solve a festering problem in the northern reaches of the Empire. Together with a few old friends Marcus heads for Britain with insurrection on his mind and murder and intrigue to keep it company. Follow the exploits as he tries to unravel the web of deceit and underhand skulduggery.
It was warm for early autumn. The trees in the valley beyond were donning their golden finery and fluffy sheep like clouds wandered lazily across the sky. I threw the scroll of Horace across the patio and sat back to watch my farm workers in the adjoining fields. To be honest, it was a glorious day. In a chair next to me a figure snored contentedly, an empty wine cup and the remains of a plate of dried figs on the table set strategically by him. Asinus had no aversion to the fruit that I could no longer touch. I looked at his slumbering form and recalled the arguments we had had. He didn’t want my charity. He wanted his independence. All very fine, until I pointed out that he was blind and needed help. That didn’t go down well. I remember those times when he would become very quiet and twist the material of his tunic, wringing it in his hands like some washer woman by the docks. It was in one of his more lucid moments that he mentioned he had been brought up on a farming estate and, after coaxing from me, revelled in the memories when he would help his father in the fields. I knew nothing of farming and I needed an advisor. Our two situations gelled. My old friend might have lost his eyes, but he still had the sight of his memories. And I needed those memories if I was to make the farm profitable. All the hard won money I had accumulated had gone in paying the prostitutes for their help in defeating the rebel army, and I never even availed myself of their services. Even the four hundred thousand sesterces willed to me by Emperor Tacitus were secreted with bankers in Rome and unavailable to me. We had left Serdica on the nones of September, with little cash other than from the sale of the bar. Oh yes, Claudia came too. We took the coast road for the most part, but I did make a diversion to a certain cave to collect the two bags of coins I had liberated all those months ago. I couldn’t find it. I was slightly frustrated but Claudia and Asinus pointed out it wasn’t mine and anyway I should be grateful for what I’d got. In the end I left off the search. Perhaps someone in the future will stumble on the hoard of Roman coins. I still occasionally wonder whether they were bronze, silver or gold. Asinus stirred.
“Someone’s coming along the road,” he smiled. He enjoyed visitors and the news they brought. Our position was quite isolated which suited me. I hadn’t noticed the approach of the stranger, but Asinus’ hearing had become very acute since his blindness. I shaded my eyes and peered along the track. A solitary horseman was walking his steed leisurely towards us. As he passed through the avenue of trees that led to the villa I recognised his loose riding style and grinned broadly.
“It’s Octavian!” I called barely concealing a childlike enthusiasm to see my one time Decurion. Asinus too was delighted at the prospect of renewing old acquaintances.
One of my house slaves took the horse and led it to the stables where it would be well looked after. Another slave was sent to bring refreshment and to call Claudia. She had not been well the last two weeks. I was initially worried by her constant bouts of sickness until she told me the reason. If it is a boy we will call him Gaius, but we hadn’t settled on a girl’s name.
The next two hours flew by as we exchanged news and stories. Octavian was appalled at the treatment of Asinus, but was delighted by the news of my impending parenthood.
“We had no formal marriage ceremony,” I confided to Octavian when Claudia excused herself. “Claudia said she didn’t want to be tied in case she ever tired of me and decided to set up another bar somewhere.”
“A lady who knows her own mind,” Octavian nodded sagely. “And how is the farm managing to survive with you in charge?” Octavian chuckled.
“Asinus is a mine of information,” I said, “And I have an able steward to manage the estate. Agretorix had a thick skull and an attentive nurse; who now happens to be his wife. Between them they look after the farm and the house.” Octavian looked from me to Asinus.
“Not many of the old company left now. So much has happened in such a short space of time. In fact, there is one less member of our coterie, the news of which is what brought me here today. You probably heard that our forces were defeated by Probus.”
“No I hadn’t. We are rather cut off here in Otriculum. What happened?” Asinus and I leaned forward.
“We outnumbered them considerably, but Probus would not bring us to a pitched battle. He led us from one position to another knowing that we were not used to the relentless heat. Many died under that cruel sun. Eventually there was a short but indecisive skirmish. The fact that we couldn’t even defeat Probus in a straight fight, together with the horrendous temperature caused some of Florianus’ army to mutiny. They forced their way into his tent one night and assassinated him.” There was a stifled gasp from Asinus.
“I would shed tears for him if I were able,” he sniffed. “I am the last male of that line now.”
“I wouldn’t say that too loudly if I were you. Some of Probus’ followers might want to eradicate that lineage all together,” Octavian warned.
“So the army defected to General Probus,” I mused.
“Not immediately. There was much debate and other names were heralded. One name in particular was put forward, mostly by the German auxiliaries and the Praetorian Guard.
“Let me guess,” I said, “Tribune Septimus Juvenal Quintus would have been my choice.”
“A good choice too,” Octavian added, “Had he not been assassinated along with Florianus. No, they chose someone entirely different, partly because of a portent some months ago. Tell me Marcus, how does it feel to know that for a few hours at least, you were proclaimed emperor of the whole Roman Empire?” I dropped my pottery wine cup and it smashed on the stone slabs. Both Asinus and Octavian roared with laughter.
“Marcus, I may be blind, but in my mind’s eye I can just see your face.” Then I too burst out laughing at the ludicrousness of the suggestion. Octavian poured more wine for me into a spare cup and proposed a toast to Rome’s lost Emperor. There was a good deal more drinking and laughing throughout the afternoon. Eventually Asinus retired to his room in need of a rest. Octavian suddenly became serious and put his hand on my arm.
“A word of advice, Marcus,” he muttered gravely. “Your name and talents have not gone unnoticed by our new Emperor. Keep a low profile if you want a quiet life.” His eyes fell on the scroll lying on the paved patio. He picked it up and studied it for a moment then handed it back to me with a smile. “Read about our ancestors and learn to live in idyllic rural peace. Horace will show you.”
I hit him.
Claudia moved sullenly to my left, between me and the table. Rufus stepped over the still unconscious and still bleeding body of Agretorix and stood at an angle to my right.
“Well,” smirked Braxus rising from his seat, “This has all been most charming, but it is time I left with my reinstated property. I’ll say goodbye because we shall not meet again. Rufus, kill him.” Rufus drew back his knife and thrust it upwards under my breastbone. The moment froze. His blade snapped and in that instance I drew out the dagger I had secreted in my sling. I don’t suppose he felt a thing as my own knife sliced through his flesh in a similar move, but the startled look as he realised his own death was gurgling away gave me a little satisfaction. His body collapsed to the floor wrenching my knife from my hand. His stab wound to me hurt badly as I clutched at my chest. Despite the pain I felt I could not resist looking at Braxus. The senator stood for a second with his flaccid mouth open and dribbling in apparent shock. Realisation suddenly dawned and he was surprisingly quick to react. He grabbed Livia and dragged her in front of him pulling his own dagger and holding it at her throat.
“Clever!” he conceded with ill grace, “but I am still leaving with my slave. He edged out from behind his table pushing the now terrified girl before him. He held my gaze as he forced Livia to walk in front of him. They skirted the bodies of Rufus and Agretorix as they headed to the gaping doorway. Livia gave a little gasp as she glanced down at my blood soaked bodyguard, but Braxus twisted her around as he backed out of the bar. There was nothing to stop him now. I wished I had some of my lads with me; either the Praetorians or my auxiliaries, but there was no one.
I didn’t see the knife flash passed me; I was too intent on watching the retreating senator. He, for his part was concentrating on me. No one paid any attention to Claudia as she picked up my dagger from the table and threw it with such accuracy into the folds of skin that enveloped the senator’s neck. He was so statled he let go of Livia who ran first to her saviour then darted to the floor to kneel by Agretorix. Braxus, for his part staggered backwards against the door jamb and pulled the knife from his neck. It was followed by a gush of pulsating blood as the severed artery drained his life away. Claudia stood panting next to me. I could see her hands were trembling. Though the pain from Rufus’ blow still seared through me I grabbed her hand as we watched Braxus’ futile attempts to stem the flow.
“Help me!” he gasped pathetically.
“You choose Braxus; die there or on a crucifix for treachery.”
He held my gaze for a moment then, with an almost imperceptible nod, he dropped his hand, folded them in his lap and waited for his crossing into Hades.
Claudia fell into my arms, well, arm and sling. She was shivering, but whether out of fear, excitement or relief I couldn’t tell. I was enjoying the attention though. Eventually I lifted her chin and stared sternly at her.
“By all the gods, where did you learn to throw like that?” Her cheeky grin momentarily lit her face as she playfully pushed away from me.
“I told you I had a former life. You learn a lot as a travelling entertainer. And what about you? I never realised you had so thick a hide that could break a blade.” She placed her hands on my chest. At first she looked startled, and then suddenly she broke into a peel of uncontrolled laughter as she discovered my mail vest.
“Ow!” I complained, though there was a certain lack of conviction in my protest. “Rufus might not have killed me, but he has certainly bruised me.” We were interrupted by a soft sobbing at my feet. Livia, her tear stained face focused on Agretorix, with his head nursed gently in her lap she carefully stroked the hair from his bludgeoned skull. I clasped Claudia’s hand in mine.
“Too much bloodshed. Too many deaths,” I sighed. “So where do we go from here?”
I wanted to rush in but Agretorix put a restraining hand on my good arm. I took a deep breath and we entered as nonchalantly as we could manage. Claudia sat at the far table, looking furiously uncomfortable. Next to her sat my Nemesis, holding her wrist in a vice like grip that I did not think possible in such a podgy hand.
“Senator Braxus. I cannot say I am pleased to see you again. I presume you are responsible for all the attempts on my life.” He gave a sickening, puffy lipped smile.
“Not very effectively it seems,” he sneered. “Still, it looks as though I have made your miserable existence less comfortable.” I moved towards the table, but Braxus yanked Claudia’s wrist backwards causing her to squeal with pain. “I don’t think you want to do that,” he snarled. Now put your weapons on the table beside you, and that goes for the creature you brought with you.” It was my turn to restrain Agretorix. I pulled my knife from my belt and threw it on the table and Agretorix reluctantly laid his sword and dagger alongside. “Sensible. Now, I’m not at all interested in talking to that big oaf next to you so what say we dispose of the distraction.” There was a stomach-churning thud from behind and Agretorix collapsed to the floor, blood matting his long tangled hair. I wheeled around to see a familiar face grinning at me as he wiped the hilt and sheathed his sword.
“Hello again sir, I see you survived our little rebellion. Not that I’m interested, but tell me, how is that simpleton Asinus?”
“Alive, no thanks to your treachery Rufus,” I grated.
“Oh dear, you disappoint me sir. I thought you would be surprised to see me.”
“You gave yourself away. You were the only one on my list who had been present at every attempt on me. That little trick with the helmet had most people fooled, but the blood on the inside could only mean a blow from the front. I’ve seen you fight and there was no way you would let that happen. If you had been taken prisoner they might have cut your throat, but that wouldn’t leave smears on the neck collar.”
“But you still came, knowing I’d be here.”
“I came precisely because I knew you’d be here. I needed to confront you and whoever your paymaster was.”
“Enough of this idle chatter,” Braxus snapped. He leered at Claudia and fondled her right breast with his free hand. I moved forward but Rufus drew his knife and held it to my face. “Go and fetch me my property, woman.” He pushed Claudia so hard she tumbled from her chair. She rose slowly glaring venomously at the Senator.
“You’ll pay for that, Braxus you fat turd!” She spat at him and flounced out of the room.
“Is that what all this has been about?” I asked incredulously. “All because you lost Livia?”
“Who? Oh you mean the slave. I don’t like to be thwarted, especially by the likes of you, a mere pleb.”
“Actually I’m now of the equestrian class thanks to the late emperor.”
“Plebeian by birth pleb by nature. Besides, your emperor is dead and his half brother will be defeated by Probus. Did you know there is a motion in the senate to ratify Probus as Emperor? I can see by the look on your face that you didn’t. No matter. You won’t live to see it. Ah here is my slave. Stand here girl.” Livia looked pleadingly at Claudia who gave her a sympathetic smile and nodded.” And as for you,” Braxus drooled, “Go and stand next to your soon-to-be ex boyfriend.”
Despite being awake and up long before the sun, duties within the fort meant I could not visit Claudia until later. Most of the Lysistratans, as the makeshift army was being called, had sidled off after the battle and returned to their homes, eagerly anticipating the welcome they would receive. Melus and a few other veterans remained to help secure the building. Without them, even though the rebel uprising had been thoroughly squashed, we would have been in a very vulnerable situation with only half a century and just one officer. It was fortunate that Melus was tireless and a tower of strength. By mid morning a fire was raging out on the plain and the rebel force was being consumed by the flames. Local carpenters were busy restoring the massive north gates and the last overturned cart was righted and wheeled away. I had visited the hospital earlier to be confronted by an officious bean pole with a sharply pointed nose and an uncompromising manner. I did not recognise him.
“Yes, what do you want?” he had asked imperiously as I entered. He obviously didn’t know me either, especially as I was informally dressed in a less than clean tunic.
“I wish to see my men,” I informed him.
“Yes, my men.” Exasperation and impatience were taking over. “I must presume you are a locum doctor drafted in from the town last night. Well I am Tribune Aegius, this is my fort and those are MY MEN!” this last sally I uttered right into his face. He blanched. “Now, while I appreciate you giving up your time to attend to the injured here I do expect a level of respect for someone who has just relieved the town of a rebellious uprising.” He had the grace to lower his gaze and mutter an apology. In silence he conducted me on a tour of the wounded. Six more had died in the night and several more were critical. Asinus was asleep and I decided not to trouble him. On my way out I turned to the doctor and surprised him by shaking his hand.
“Thank you for all you are doing. I really do appreciate your efforts on behalf of my men.” He gave a half hearted smile at that last remark. Outside Agretorix was waiting for me.
“I think it’s time you relaxed and had a drink sir. I know a good bar in the town.”
I realised it was nearly midday and he was quite right; I needed to see Claudia. I looked at my poor attire and thought I should change, even if there was no time for a bath.
A quarter of an hour later we strode into town. It was another hot summer’s day, my arm troubled me and I was concerned. The streets were returning to life and there were a few cheerful greetings from some of the locals. A few of the men sported bandages and contented smiles. I thought I knew why. We arrived at the bar door and my heart sank. It lay twisted on a single hinge where it had been broken in.
I looked around at the devastation again and realised there was no way I could get to see Claudia until the morning. It was now late afternoon and my men were too weary or injured to make any progress. Melus was a great help though as I had lost both my centurions and as far as I knew Asinus too was no longer with us. He organised his volunteers and despatched the more able to the fort walls while the rest he detailed to help the doctor or stack the bodies or just generally clear the mayhem that surrounded us. My first thoughts were to my own men who were mostly gathered in small groups seated around the overturned carts. Agretorix came with me and we checked the roll. The walking survivors numbered forty three including Agretorix and me. I sent my bodyguard to carry out a head count of those in the infirmary and went to find Melus. He was with his crew sorting the bodies. It was gruesome, but he had afforded my lads the dignity of laying them out in neat rows while the mercenaries were dumped in an untidy heap by the broken north gate. Flies were already swarming around the corpses and with the heat of tomorrow the decomposition would start, replacing the cloying smell of congealing blood with the sweet stench of rotting flesh. Melus, however, assured me that the bodies would have been disposed of long before corruption could set in. He had organised a band to gather wood and erect a huge pyre on the scrubland behind the southern side of the fort. This was for the rebel forces. My men were to be buried with honour in a mausoleum by the main road into town. I determined to have some sort of monument built, the funding to be split between myself and the burial fund. That brought back a host of memories.
We were joined by Agretorix, returning from the infirmary who gave me the grim news that twenty eight lived, but were badly injured. Five would almost certainly not make it through the night. On a lighter note he added that Asinus was asking for me. It was heartening to hear he was still alive and I hurried to the hospital. At the entrance I noticed a couple of Melus’ team looking at Julia and scratching their heads.
“Lay her alongside my men,” I instructed. “She deserves honour for trying to help.” I entered the infirmary and was assailed by the sounds of agonised cries and pleadings. Every inch of floor space of the long corridor was taken up with makeshift stretchers. Men with head wounds lay next to men with limbs missing in what appeared to be a haphazard illogical manner. The doctor, tired and blood stained approached.
“Want me to take a look at that arm?” his voice was weary to the point of exhaustion. I shook my head.
“They need you more,” I indicated the rows of casualties.
“They’re not the worst. Those are in the side rooms. Here,” he tossed a small bundle at me, “At least put a clean dressing on it. A sling might be useful too. I’m sure your slave can fix it up for you.”
“Freedman,” I muttered as we entered Asinus’ room. “I’m manumising him as soon as possible. He’s deserved it.”
“From enemy, to slave, to freedman. Some transition.” Asinus sounded stronger. The doctor left to continue his ceaseless work as I went to sit by my friend. “That was some battle from what I could hear,” he said. His voice had lost its youthful fervour. There was an undertone of cynicism aging him.
“A bit heated,” I agreed and told him all that transpired. When I mentioned what Melus had said about Claudia, he became agitated.
“Go to her at first light Marcus. I fear for her safety if she knows who has been trying to have you killed.”
Asinus was right; I needed to see Claudia urgently.
As the next assailant charged at me, in my muddled state I thought I heard a cry from the direction of the fallen gates. I must have been hallucinating as it sounded like someone shouting “Lysistrata!” Ridiculous! I parried the thrust and sliced through his hand. The hand and the sword it was still holding clattered to the ground as the mercenary looked in stunned disbelief at the stump that now pumped out his life blood. There was that yell again. Through the mass of tangled fighting bodies a new army stormed towards us, some wearing old legionary armour, some wielding pitch forks and scythes. They charged into the mercenaries mercilessly, hacking stabbing and slashing as they went. Leading them was a grizzled veteran wearing the transverse plumes of a centurion and striding out as if he had just entered a practice arena to teach the new recruits who was in charge. With this new threat at their back, the mercenaries tried to disperse and make for the gates, but the new army must have been close on a thousand strong. What they lacked in finesse they certainly made up for in enthusiasm, determination and aggression. They fought as if their very souls depended on the outcome and then I recalled what they were fighting for. It gave a whole new meaning to sexual drive.
The rout turned into a flight as the mercenaries’ desperation became panic. Those of my Praetorians still standing did not join in, grateful to be spectators for once. The doctor and his assistants, who had thankfully been safely secreted in the infirmary, now joined us and busied themselves tending to the wounded. There wasn’t a soldier still standing that had escaped unscathed. Agretorix, who at some point had lost his helmet in the heat of the battle, sported a bandage around his forehead. He busied himself wrapping a long strip of pale blue material around my arm. I didn’t ask where he got it from, but the colour bore a striking resemblance to the tunic worn by Julia. As he finished tying off the dressing the burly figure of the veteran centurion ambled up to me and saluted.
“Tribune Aegius?” he asked gruffly. I nodded. “Pleased to meet you sir. The name’s Plinius Thracius Melus; former centurion of the VII Claudia.” He gazed silently for a moment at the carnage and added apologetically, “We got here as soon as we could sir.”
“Soon enough for us, not soon enough for them,” I indicated the bodies littered around the barricade. “But I’m grateful Melus. When your lads have finished looting the dead over there, perhaps they could lend a hand to our doctor who seems to be a little on the busy side.”
“Straight away sir. Oh, before I forget, a certain young lady by the name of Claudia sends her regards, and asked, if you’ve got a moment, to call round and see her. She said something about knowing your Nemisis, if you know what she means sir.”
“Thank you Melus. As soon as I’ve seen the wounded settled and my men made comfortable I shall give her my full attention.”