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The Sword of Revenge, страница 1


The Sword of Revenge

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The Sword of Revenge







  To Edward Ephraim, who has overcome many difficulties in a fascinating life, not least having me as a neighbour.


  Title Page





























  About the Author

  By Jack Ludlow



  The dedication of a tomb to a great man was a magnificent occasion, doubly so when the person whose life was being recalled was someone seen as honest, upright and a friend to the common people. Few doubted that the individual being honoured this day had been such a man; if he had demonstrable defects they were those of the ordinary mortal: however upright a man tried to be in his life, he could never quite stand unbowed against the malice or jesting nature of the Gods.

  Born into one of the leading families of Rome, Aulus Cornelius had been a great general, the man who led the legions against, and humbled the heirs of, Alexander the Great. His victories in Greece had earned him the suffix Macedonicus and wealth beyond the dreams of avarice, but it was not just his fighting qualities that singled him out. He was remembered as an administrator who had employed, both in Rome and in the provinces, a light touch in the magistracies he had occupied, including the two occasions on which he had held the office of Consul, never bearing down on the poor and dispossessed in favour of the rich, the well-born or the powerful.

  There were many ex-soldiers resident in the city who could recollect serving under him and recall his ease of manner, his natural nobility, as well as his concern for their welfare. Not that Aulus Cornelius was soft; any legions he commanded were a byword for their tight discipline and good order. But most telling, he was loved by his comrades because he had that commodity esteemed by all fighting men: he was successful. To crown a glittering career Aulus Cornelius Macedonicus had left behind him an inspiring tale to make the whole population of the city of Rome feel proud. He had died a hero’s death in the province of Illyricum, leading a mere seventy men who perished with him, to hold back, in a narrow defile, a much more numerous enemy, so that the legions to their rear could prepare for battle, a contest in which they were victorious.

  ‘Is that what they are saying?’ asked Titus Cornelius, the dead man’s youngest son, who had arrived from Spain the day before. ‘That he and his soldiers died to give the 10th legion time to prepare. That it was a deliberate sacrifice?’

  ‘It is what is being put about by the man who betrayed him, as well as his friends.’

  Claudia Cornelia, widow of Aulus and stepmother to Titus, spoke softly, not being sure who was within earshot. Quintus, her other stepson, was preparing for the ceremonies, seemingly unconcerned that such falsehoods regarding his father’s death were being openly peddled around the city.

  ‘And does this lie go unchallenged?’

  Claudia smiled ruefully. ‘The supporters of Vegetius Flaminus have paid people to go to the baths, streets, markets and taverns to spread this tale. And it is clever, Titus, for it does not diminish your father. If anything it makes him more of a paragon and that goes for the soldiers with him. They are seen as dying like Leonidas and his Spartans, knowingly giving up their lives for the greater good. What could be more puissant to a Roman soldier than to be likened to the heroes of Thermopyle?’

  ‘Then it’s time to counter it.’

  Titus had been told the truth in the despatch which fetched him back from his military duties; how Vegetius Flaminus, the corrupt and corpulent governor of Illyricum, had, through his rapacity, caused an uprising amongst the locals and through his ineptitude had allowed them to combine with Dacian tribesmen from beyond the borders of the province to create a full-blown revolt. Aulus Cornelius had headed a senatorial commission to investigate Vegetius and his gubernatorial record. On seeing the depth of his fellow-senator’s depredations – rapacious taxation, open bribery and fiscal chicanery – as well as the way his army, more accustomed to labouring than soldiering, had ceased to be effective, he had superseded him.

  The legion in Illyricum, the 10th, Aulus had brought back to fighting capacity by good training and personal example, till a rebellion that had festered for years seemed to peter out. No sooner had Illyricum been made peaceful, than yet another revolt started to the south, in the neighbouring Roman province of Epirus, one which the 10th Legion, the nearest large military force, was obliged to suppress. At the head of an advanced guard and seeking to contain what he thought was a local uprising, Aulus Cornelius had discovered the truth of what he faced, an enemy army large enough to give full battle. He sent back for reinforcements but Vegetius Flaminus had declined to throw them forward, leaving Aulus isolated with his reconnaissance cohort at a narrow gorge called the Pass of Thralaxas, forced to fight and take casualties before he was truly ready.

  Had he and his men been supported, as they should have been, their situation would not have been grave, but by his actions the titular governor had condemned to death those who could not flee. Even when it was clear that no help was coming Aulus could have left the danger with a clear conscience – it was no part of a Roman general’s duties to be cut off from his command – but, typically, he would not abandon the men he had led into this death-trap to save his own skin.

  ‘The rest of the commission…’

  Claudia interrupted Titus. ‘Lily-livered apologists for Vegetius Flaminus, or nonentities who would dearly love to bask in the reflected glory of his forthcoming triumph. Your father was the only upright man on the commission he led. The rest are wolves like Vegetius, or sheep too frightened to bleat the truth.’

  As they talked the steady hum of the crowd, gathering in the pre-dawn darkness outside the house, had grown, with the odd shout from an impatient mourner penetrating the walls. Some of those gathered would have been drinking and have joined the spectators in the hope that the new head of the Cornelii family would chuck some coinage at their feet: it was the way of the funeral rites of the wealthy, which were as much a celebration of a life lived as a grieving over loss. A slave appeared to inform them that Quintus was ready to begin, with prayers to Manes, the God of deceased loved ones, at the family altar. Titus and Claudia pulled cowls over their heads, then made their way to the small chapel off the atrium, home to the Cornelii Lares, the repository of the family Genius.

  The overseer nearly got Aquila. In place before dawn, Nicos had changed his tactics, staying still and waiting for the poacher to appear in the deepest part of the wood, rather than trying to track him as he hunted, snaring the small game and spearing the larger, stealing what was not rightfully his from the fenced-off land belonging to Cassius Barbinus. He and the men he led made sure they were downwind of their quarry, so that when the boy stopped well short of the first of his traps, he was not sure why. It was the lack of noise in a place that should not be silent: such a
thing signified a threat. Remaining still, he saw no birds fly nor land in the trees and a search of the morning sky showed no hawks or kestrels, not even a high-flying eagle. If no birds sang in the woods, nor were staying still for fear of a flying hunter, that meant there was something else present, something large enough to command a hush.

  Slowly and silently he backed away, watching with care where he placed his sandalled feet on a forest floor thick with leaves, twigs and broken-off branches. If it was a large predator that had made the forest still he had no desire to confront it; if it was human the chances of that being friendly were small. Aquila knew just how angry the Barbinus overseer was at his poaching, because Nicos had told everyone in the district that he knew what was going on and just what he intended to do with a whip when he caught the culprit.

  The awareness he had of this wooded world had not deserted Aquila following the events of four seasons past; it could hardly be otherwise with Minca his constant companion. The huge dog was lying still, hardly breathing while Aquila checked his traps, but he stood as his master backed towards him, pointed ears pricked as he sensed danger, soundlessly on Aquila’s heels as the boy passed him. Soon they were out in an open field, playing as a boy and dog should, engaged in a tug of war over a thick stick, as the sun rose over the mountains to the east to light the fields of pasture and the quietly grazing cattle.

  Aquila pretended not to see the men lurking at the edge of the wood, a party that, once they moved, had made a sound that would not have disgraced a herd of those same cattle. The sight of Minca would keep them there; huge and frightening to a stranger, the animal was to a friend as gentle as the lambs he used to tend. He was also, now, Aquila’s dog; Gadoric, the Celtic slave-shepherd who had raised him from a puppy, had been taken south to a place called Sicily, where he was apparently likely to die a slow and wasting death toiling in the fields, poorly fed and labouring under a killer sun.

  When the boy thought of Gadoric, one-eyed, tall and fair, and in truth a warrior not a pastoral custodian, his one-time tutor and friend, tears pricked the corners of his eyes; he had been one of the few people in the world that Aquila had loved. Another was the girl Sosia, young and beautiful, like Gadoric a slave owned by Cassius Barbinus. Finally there was Fulmina, the woman who had raised him, the woman he thought of as his mother. All three had gone from his life in one horrendous day; Gadoric to Sicily, Sosia to Rome and Fulmina to Hades.

  Before dying Fulmina had told him the truth of his birth; that the people he had called Mama and Papa were not his real parents, that he had been found deep in the forest, well away from any habitation, left there on the morning after the Feast of Lupercalia, exposed by someone who had not wanted him to live. Now all he was left with was a hankering for the only person to whom he could say he was close, the man he had called Papa, Clodius Terentius, serving for years in the Illyricum legion, and surely long past the time at which he was due home.

  The finding of him in that forest glade had, Fulmina insisted, been a marvel. First, Clodius being in the woods, waking from a bout of heavy drinking, then the weak sun of a Febricus morning that lit that one patch in which he lay. Whoever had laid him on the ground had left him in the swaddling clothes in which he had been wrapped after his birth, thick enough to blunt the night-time cold. When these thoughts of loss and longing became intolerable, Aquila would visit the gurgling riverside spot where he had been found and wonder at the nature of the people who had abandoned him. He would see in his mind’s eye ghostly figures on horseback – Clodius had seen hoof prints – figures whose faces were indistinct death-masks, or horrible, hooded apparitions that spoke of Hades and desecration. He would look up to the distant mountains over which the sun rose each day, one with a strange cap shaped like a votive cup, home to the soaring eagles after whom he had been named.

  At other times he would go to where the hut in which he had been raised once stood. Standing before that spot he would touch the leather amulet that had been Fulmina’s last gift to him, something she had kept hidden all his life. Well-tanned leather and shining with beeswax, it bore on it a raised device of an eagle in flight, wings outstretched. He never took it off his arm, because Fulmina had told him that what it contained, stitched inside, was the harbinger of his destiny. She had also made him swear not to unpick that stitching until he was old enough to fear no man, a vow he had made before the turf altar of their tiny abode, an oath which he would never break.

  There was guilt too when he stood and remembered, given how little time he had spent here in the last year of Fulmina’s life; in Gadoric he had found someone who had been like the soldier father he so missed. Every waking hour, as well as many a nocturnal one, had been spent in his company. Pretending to be witless and older than his years, Gadoric walked with a stoop, his face hidden by a wide straw hat, as he tended the Cassius Barbinus flock of sheep. He had certainly fooled Aquila the day they met; an intended shock to an old shepherd had turned full circle into surprise for the boy, that made doubly so by the dog he had neither seen nor anticipated. Minca would have taken out his throat if the one-eyed shepherd had not intervened.

  Intrigued by the boy’s strange colouring, Gadoric had taken Aquila into his confidence, revealing the truth – that he desired only one thing, a chance to return to his own homeland. He had also taken to a boy who was keen to learn and had the time to do so, until, as a trio, which included Minca, they became inseparable. The Celt had taught Aquila to use a spear he had stolen, how to fire a flint-tipped arrow and how to use a wooden sword, to stab, parry, cut and stun with the pommel. He had taught Aquila some of his barbarous tongue, in exchange for an improvement from the boy’s rustic Latin, which the Celt would need if he were to escape. By the light of a tallow wad he had told him long Celtic sagas, which the lad struggled to fully understand, yet knowing that they were tales of the kind of courage and fortitude of which he dreamt.

  He was taught that birds’ eggs in nests were to be left to hatch, the chickens would provide such food; care should be taken not to kill a cub, be it bear, wolf, fox, stoat or ferret, for these animals lived in concert with the trees, the sky and the rivers which were part of Gadoric’s religion. He was encouraged to eat only fully grown fish and when hunting bird or beast to take only what was necessary so that the land would continue to flourish and produce until eternity.

  With the sun lighting the nearby Via Appia, Aquila left the forest behind, heading for the place where he now lived, the half-built house of Piscius Dabo. He would not call Dabo’s place home, for it could never be that. It was a roof under which he could lay his head till the day his adopted father Clodius came home. Then together they could rebuild the hut, which had formed the funeral pyre of Fulmina, and life could go back to some semblance of what it had once been.


  Those gathered for the dedication of the tomb were the relatives and closest friends of the deceased, men of station. Naturally this included Aulus’s childhood companion, Lucius Falerius Nerva, one of the two reigning censors and at present the most powerful senator in Rome. While most stood around, heads bowed, he looked about him with an air that bordered on the impious, as if examining each attendee to measure the depth and honesty of their respect, by his actions implying to Titus Cornelius, even if he did not intend it, that he was, himself, lacking in that attribute.

  A thin man, with narrow features and thinning hair, the ex-consul was feared as much as he was respected. He had been Aulus’s friend since the time both learnt to talk and on the rare occasions when Titus’s father had mentioned the man it had always been with admiration for his abilities as an administrator, with reservations regarding his use of the power he wielded in the Senate. As the hazel eyes swung onto the widow, the Falerii face took on an expression of mild disdain. Claudia Cornelia, unable to see out of the side of her cowl, did not observe the look, but Titus did. Lucius had never quite accepted the second marriage of Aulus Cornelius, seeing it as a piece of gross foolishness that a m
an nearing forty, and as famous and wealthy as Macedonicus, should wed a slip of a girl who, at the nuptials, was a mere sixteen.

  Titus had been twelve at the time of the marriage, but you could not move in a Roman street without seeing the lubricious graffiti, or hearing the ribald comments of the lower classes regarding the match; the views of his father’s peers were passed on as jokes to Titus by his gleeful contemporaries as they practised martial arts in the Campus Martius. Observing Lucius now, Titus saw a dry stick of a man who looked and acted as though sensual passion was something alien to his nature – hard to believe he had fathered a son of his own. Yet he had not been alone; Quintus had been dead set against the betrothal, and had let his younger brother know just how much he resented the replacement of his late mother by a girl younger than he, who he saw as a nonentity looking to bask in his father’s fame and fortune.

  Lucius eventually looked from Claudia to Titus, the expression turning to a thin smile, tempered with a hint of curiosity, as if the older man was saying, ‘I know who you are, but what are you like?’ The stare was returned in a direct way that had the censor dropping his head into a reverential pose, this as Quintus began the prayers to Jupiter and Juno, the premier God and Goddess of the Roman pantheon. Titus, with a silent plea to Honos, God of chivalry, honour and military justice, looked up at the death-masks of his ancestors, lit from below by flickering oil lamps, with his father’s the most prominent in a line that stretched back hundreds of years. He felt a surge of pride, for in his world the family was everything – the means by which a man achieved immortality – and he prayed next to the Goddess of the Future, Antevorte, that one day his own deeds would elevate the Cornelii name and that when his descendants said prayers at this very altar before the mask of his own likeness, they would do so in the same spirit that he did so now.

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