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Vengeance – Chapter Four

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If you’re up to date with my free serialized story to keep your isolation spirits up, here’s week four in its entirety:

𝐕𝐄𝐍𝐆𝐄𝐀𝐍𝐂𝐄

Julius Rigonorix should have flinched back from the light as the door opened. Normal people would have done that in the dingy room. The fact that the fugitive simply sat there and looked quietly up, pupils shrinking to dots, said a lot about the man, none of which Valens liked.

The optio reached out his hand and turned, shouting to the men guarding the hut outside. ‘Give me your sword.’

‘Sir?’

‘Give me your sword and run off to draw a new one from the armoury.’

‘But… but it’s my sword.’

‘If we live you can have it back.’

‘My dad had this sword.’

‘If you don’t hand it over, you can say hello to him again, pretty fucking soon.’

The soldier unsheathed the blade and passed it over. He did not look happy, but Valens nodded at him. ‘While you draw another sword, I want you to check the armoury inventory. Make sure it’s in order.’

‘Sir.’ The soldier ran off, looking glum.

Valens turned to the prisoner, sword in his hand. Stepping inside, he approached the man. ‘I always considered myself a good judge of character. I think you’re a dangerous bastard, but I think you’re on the level. On the bright side, if I’m wrong, I doubt I’ll care for very long.’

He held out the sword. ‘Take it.’

‘You sure you want to do this, Optio?’

‘There’s half a thousand howling lunatics outside the gate. They’ve already beheaded one of my men. Unless they can be talked down, we’re going to need every sword hand. Would you like to tell me now, is there some way I can stop this?’

Rigonorix took the sword and handled it in a worryingly expert manner, pointing it at Valens as he checked the straightness of the blade. ‘I did not know the people Secundus’s men killed. I had never met them before. But the one who gave me sanctuary was not local. He was visiting. He was a Carvetii noble, I suspect the brother or son of a chief, and was killed by the men chasing me. This is simple revenge. Maybe… just maybe… if you feed them the two men who brought me in, you might buy them off.’

Valens huffed. ‘You know I can’t hand over two soldiers to be executed, no matter what they’ve done. Could it be you’re playing me? Trying to get me to hand over your captors? Jove, but you’re a slippery one.’

‘You’ve spoken to Secundus. You think he’s the good guy?’

‘I think he’s a piece of shit,’ Valens retorted.

‘Aren’t we all. You want me on the walls?’

Valens nodded. ‘I think we want everyone on the walls. I need to brief the whole fort at the principia shortly. First, though, I want to see what we can do with your friends from Alauna. Come with me.’

With the armed fugitive in tow, Valens left the room and hurried towards the hut where he knew the two other new arrivals to be finishing their meal. Pushing open the door, he found the pair playing dice.

‘What the fuck?’ Secundus barked, rising and starting to draw his blade at the sight of Rigonorix armed.

‘My orders. We’re about to be under siege. I want you two with us at the south gate, now.’

The two men glared at him for a moment, then exchanged a look. Both nodded and rose to leave. The optio from Alauna, Valens noted, finished drawing his sword first instead of returning it to its sheath.

It was odd, Valens noted, the way his small entourage moved. Secundus and his friend to one side, Rigonorix at the other, the guards from outside the medical hut keeping them apart. In fairness, Valens had enough to worry about without dealing with the enmity between these three men, each of whom had signed the documents, taken the oath and accepted the emperor’s sestertius.

By the time he reached the south gate, there were three men atop it, peering out into the white. Arseholes. Valens climbed the steps and emerged onto the parapet beside them. Without speaking to them, he looked out down the vicus street and his breath caught in his throat. What had been one head on a stick was now five.

‘What in the name of…?’

‘They’ve been bringing them out at regular intervals,’ the guard murmured. ‘A quick chop, skewered on a stick and then off to find the next one. Grattius was last. We’re due another at any moment.’

Valens looked out. Of the five, three were civilians he’d seen round the place from time to time, the others were the two soldiers he’d dragged from the bath house. ‘Ah, shit.’ He turned and gestured to Secundus and his companion. ‘You lot started this somewhere else and brought it to my door. Get to that parapet, and if there is any chance we can stop this, we will.’ He turned to Rigonorix. ‘Somehow, I think it might be best if you stay out of sight until we’ve tried everything else.’ Then to the two men alongside the gate guard, who were gorping at the heads while holding broom and bag and shovel. ‘You two seem to have stopped work. Get moving and get that wall walk cleared. We’re going to need to use it safely soon.’

The two men ran off. The optio peered out into the snow. He could almost sense an unspoken argument going on behind him, but ignored it, watching for movement. Sure enough, after a short and tense wait, a group of dark shapes moved out into the street, dragging a screaming shape. This one fought them long enough and hard enough that they clonked him on the head before pushing him down to the ground and hacking off his skull. As they brought the head forward, two others carrying another freshly cut pole, Valens cleared his throat.

‘Three quarters of you lot can understand enough Latin to get by.’

The figures in the street stopped. Valens gestured to the two soldiers from Alauna. ‘These men may have inadvertently done something stupid. They are extremely contrite, for all that they look like clueless dickheads.’ He felt a small thrill of glee at the glares the two men gave him. ‘Tell me how we can solve this.’

There was no reply, but the shapes disappeared into a side street and reappeared in greater numbers. Valens could not be certain, but he thought one of the newcomers was the man who’d seemed to lead at their last encounter. The walked forward through the falling snow and picked up the helmet that had been ripped from the decapitated legionary’s head. Bringing it out ten paces in front of the line of staked heads, he placed the helmet on the floor, stepped back, and produced a massive sledgehammer. Lifting it, he brought it down in a crushing blow on the empty helmet. As Valens watched, the figure found the original head, twisted and pulled it from its spike, and squeezed the disembodied skull into the mangled helmet. He passed it to a big man close by, who stepped forward and began to spin like a discus thrower.

It was an impressive shot. The head-in-a-crushed-helmet glanced off the battlements close to Valens and disappeared into the fort. The optio really wished he had a scorpion set up, as he’d have put a bolt through the man in an instant. Unfortunately, he didn’t.

He turned to look at the others, and Secundus shrugged. ‘Doesn’t look like they’re open to debate.’

Valens threw out a finger at the gate guard. ‘I know you’ve the no horn or bell or anything, but you watch out there. Anything happens you’re not expecting, you jump up and down, wave and shout til’ your chest hurts. Got it?’

The man nodded and the optio gestured to the others. ‘Get to the principia. Everyone should be there by now.’

‘Don’t you want me to talk to them then?’ Orgetorix asked with a dry smirk.

‘Would it do any good?’

‘Not a bit.’

‘Then join the garrison in the principia and try not to kill anyone until you’re told to.’

The two men from Alauna glared at him. ‘Arming this bastard is trouble.’

‘He is trouble. So are you. All of this is trouble, and thanks to you, all of this is my trouble.’

‘And where are you going?’ Secundus grunted.

‘To check something.’

Leaving them to it, and with one last look at the street with its grisly display, Valens hurried down to the fort interior and hurried through it until he reached the armoury. The hut door stood open, and the optio dipped inside. The soldier from the other gate was busy walking along a wall, counting loudly.

‘Have you done?’

The man turned and frowned. ‘Not by a long way, sir, but I’ve found some surprises.’

‘Oh yes? Do tell.’

‘When the cohort moved out, they left the entire compliment of scorpions behind, sir. Six of the damned things, though they all need a bit of work. Big problem is: there’s only two score bolts for them. What kind of mind packs the ammunition for travel and forgets the weapons? Idiots. We’ve also got six hunter’s bows, but again not more than a couple of dozen arrows. A damn big stack of pila that were left behind, but only the crap ones. They took all the best. Enough armour to kit out maybe six people beyond our own. Bag of tribuli, couple of dozen weighted darts and for some unknown reason seven cavalry face masks for sports events.’

‘And that’s not all of it?’

‘Jove, no. Half a building to search yet. No one’s bothered keeping too much track of this since everyone left.’

Valens nodded. ‘We’re going to need all of this and more. Start moving it out into the street and keep it in groups ready, but finish running through the list of what there is first. I’ll send you a couple of helpers.’

Leaving the man, he stepped out into the street again. How could they have landed in so much shit so quickly? He was on his way to the principia to brief everyone when a thought struck him. Three streets across, he found one of the blocks that had been out of use for some time. If he was lucky, his men were as lazy as he imagined. Reaching the disused hut, he opened the door. The smell nearly knocked him down, and he grinned even as he gagged, slamming the door shut once more and stepping away from the block.

The southwest latrine had been blocked since not long after the cohort were pulled out, but the block was the most popular of the two, because sewer demons made sport with the one in the northwest. Rather than risk having their genitals attacked or having to walk outside the fort, the bulk of the men had started using the blocked latrine and then simply bucketing away the backed up horror and storing it in a nearby disused block. Valens had ordered the hut cleared and the whole process stopped a dozen times, but clearly it hadn’t happened.

Well no poor bastard Carvetian warrior was prepared for that missile.

Leaving the hut he hurried off to the headquarters building to brief his men.

There were eight people on duty, Valens thought as he strode into the principia. There was one on each corner tower, one at the south gate, two clearing the wall walk, and one working through the stores. Yet as he stepped into the courtyard, he was surprised at how full it seemed. He’d been in here with a full cohort mustered and it had felt normal. Five hundred souls. Now there were maybe thirty five in the space and it still looked cluttered.

He strode past them all and climbed the tribunal. With a quick nod to the statue of the emperor, he readied himself. Of course, the emperor was not the right one. A place like this was so remote that a replacement statue would only be forthcoming as an afterthought, as no one would give the job to a local. Local sculptors would make him look like a lumpy goblin.

‘I doubt anyone is unaware of our situation,’ he said, as he came to a halt on the platform. ‘But in case you’ve had your head down the one working latrine, there’s a whole army of natives out there who’ve decapitated the rest of the civilians and two of my men. They won’t talk or listen to reason, and the threat they pose is quite real. They’re here and they’re coming for us.’

There was a murmur among the men and Valens let it go this time, waiting for it to ebb.

‘We can’t leave,’ he said flatly. ‘There’s no way to get to Glannoventa or over the pass. The moment we try to leave we run into them. So we rely on our walls. We have to hold them out until they give up and go away. We have the advantage. It’s snowy and freezing. They cannot stay out there forever. We are trained to hold a place like this and, though there aren’t so many of us, we can do it. The slope from the west wall is steep and that to the north is even steeper, so attacks from either side are pretty unlikely. We need to concentrate on the south and east. I want every man available on those walls.’

He straightened. ‘My best two lookouts are Rubellius and Pollio. They will each take one of the north and west walls. Everyone else gets divided up between south and east. Can the civilians step forward?’

He paused while the motley collection of locals moved away from the soldiers, making themselves known. Valens looked along their lines. ‘Lugracus,’ he said, pointing at the smith, ‘can you fletch ballista bolts and arrows?’

The old man nodded. ‘Passably. Not my best skill, but I know how to do it.’

‘Take Elia and her kid and show her how to do it. We have plenty of raw materials.’

One of the soldiers stepped forward. ‘Sir, you can’t ask a girl to make arrows?’

‘So she just sits here admiring herself until they enemy get in because we’re out of ammunition?’ He glanced over at her. ‘What do you think, Elia?’

‘Making arrows will be a pleasure,’ she said firmly.

Lugracus reached out and put a hand on her shoulder. ‘Come on, girl.’

‘Belliacus,’ Valens said, gesturing to the miserable looking old man, ‘I want you at the south gate. If I remember rightly, you have proper experience on the field of battle?’ At a nod from the old man, he thumbed over his shoulder. ‘I want you at the south gate. Something tells me that’s the first point of trouble and that you’ll be most useful there.’

He looked across the crowd. ‘Hermod, they tell me you could take out a hare at two hundred paces?’

‘No one could do that.’

‘Still, get up on the southeast tower with the best field of view. I’ll make sure you have all the arrows you need.’ He looked at the other civilians. ‘The rest of you follow Glabrio to the armoury and help get everything useful moved outside and prepared. Glabrio, that’s your task. Furthermore, any one of my lot who has any artillery experience, we have plenty of scorpios. I want you split into two man teams and head down to the armoury to collect your weapon. They’re nicely portable, so I want them spread out along the east and south walls for now.’

He sighed. ‘Everyone I’ve mentioned, move out and go about your tasks.’

He waited for the civilians and a handful of soldiers to leave, and when he was left with only his own men, he sighed. ‘Bravado and optimism aside, we all know we’re fucked and that the walls won’t hold, right?’

The men of the cohort looked up at their optio, false hope dropping away. ‘Don’t get me wrong,’ Valens said to them, ‘I have no intention of surrendering, and there are ways we can do this, but the civilians think fort walls are unassailable and that we can do anything. We can’t.’

‘Not enough men,’ shouted one of the soldiers.

‘Precisely. Even the worst mathematician can divide our walls by our garrison and shit himself at the number he comes up with. Even if we only have to hold the south and east walls, it’s still just a matter of time.’

‘So what’s the plan sir?’

Plan? Valens bit off his retort that there was no real chance for a plan. After all, he sort of had one. ‘Here’s what we do. We man the walls with every man we can spare, and we have the non-combatants manufacturing ammunition. But while all that goes on, I want six men working on a redoubt. I’ll be giving you authority to take whatever you need. Tear down barracks and latrines if you must. Across the middle of the fort are three buildings: the granary, the principia and the commander’s house. Four walls blocking the streets will turn three buildings into one fortress. There are no windows in the granaries, and all the ones in the CO’s house and the principia face inwards. They’re a natural fortress. Six men with an hour or two should be able to make those three buildings into a solid redoubt. The defensive line is then contracted. The fort walls are five hundred paces around. This new redoubt will be just two hundred. That means we are more than twice as likely to survive, based on the mathematics.’

The soldiers nodded. This sort of logic appealed to them.

‘Is there no way to get help or get out of here, then, sir?’ A soldier called.

‘I don’t think so,’ Valens admitted. ‘The enemy are right outside the fort.

Vibius Cestius, his odd, mismatched eyes gleaming, stepped forward. ‘That might not be true, sir. I’ve been thinking about this.’

‘Oh yes?’

‘Yes. The enemy are not stupid. The main force will be watching the south and east walls, and they will have odd men watching the bad approaches to the north and west too, but not many. Send runners out to the valley below on the north and west sides and they stand a chance. A strong man might make it to Glannoventa and the rest of the century in four hours. Allow an hour for faffing, and in nine hours they could be back here, doubling our manpower.’

Valens frowned. ‘I lose two men, though.’

‘But you win a future sir.’ Cestius threw out a finger in the direction of the armoury. ‘Fit scorpions to north and west. Two or three each. But make the south and east really enticing. Lots of activity to draw their attention. When the men run, any watcher will have to put up their head. Hit it with a ballista bolt.’

Valens frowned. It was possible. ‘Better to have the hope of relief than not eh? Alright, Cestius, you’ve sold your plan. You and Glaucus won the Lupercalia race last year, so you and Glaucus are our runners.’

‘Sir, you need me here.’

‘Not as much as I need forty angry armed men. Go get things ready. You’re bound for Glannoventa.’

Written by SJAT

April 17, 2020 at 7:37 am

Posted in Roman Military

Tagged with , , ,

Vengeance – Chapter Three

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Here you go, folks. Keep your minds busy during lockdown and isolation with my free Roman tale, Vengeance. Here’s Chapter 3, and don’t forget you can go back and read chapters 1 and 2 on this blog as well. If you enjoy and you have a few free pennies, please consider donating to charity at https://authorswithoutborders.org/donate/ (my chosen charity on the page is Martin House, a very worthy charity.) For now… on with the action:

Valens staggered back out into the ever increasing snowfall, and tried to glance up to the fort. It was impossible to see the walls from here, but the clanging of the bell was frantic and had been picked up by a second source. Whatever it was – and the optio had a pretty shrewd, dark idea what it was – it was enough to put the shits up professional veterans.

Two soldiers spilled out of the doorway, skin still gleaming and wet, towels around their shoulders, one of them gripping a handful of dice in one hand and coins in the other. The two men paused only to throw on their tunics, fasten their belts, slip their feet unto untied boots and hurl cloaks across their shoulders. As they did all this in the blink of an eye, they both badgered the optio for information. What was happening? Why the rush?

Valens stood out in the snow, holding up a finger at them while he looked this way and that.

He fancied he could hear a distant roar. He remembered when the whole unit was based here and he’d been part of the prefect’s hunting party. They’d thought they cornered a bear in the woods down the valley. It had not taken long to realise that the target of their hunt was every bit as dangerous as any four men tracking it. The roar the bear had let out as it came crashing out of the undergrowth and killed three of the hunting party was more or less what Valens was hearing now. He couldn’t explain it. But he didn’t like it.

‘Shut up, idiots,’ he said, cutting through the two men’s questions.

The soldiers stopped, unarmed and partially dressed, ready for action – of a sort.

‘Sir?’

Shit was coming, Valens knew. They were trapped in the sewer and the shit was coming. Get to high ground. ‘Publius,’ he jabbed a finger at one of them, ‘how many civilians are there in the vicus?’

‘Oh about fifteen, sir.’

‘Not about… exactly.’ Publius was a man who more or less lived in the vicus with the civilians when off duty.

The man with the handful of dice and the handful of coins shrugged, frowning as he concentrated. ‘Er, fourteen, sir. At last count.’

‘You know them all?’

‘I think so, sir.’

‘I’m going to take the houses on the main street. We need to get all the civilians in the fort. Trouble is coming. You two get round the periphery and pull in all the others. I want to see you at the gate in a five hundred count, with the entire civilian population right behind you.’

The two men frowned in incomprehension. ‘Sir?’

‘We’ve got guests at the fort, and we’re about to get a few more. I can’t be sure, but I think they’ll be a gross or more of angry natives.

The two men stared at him.

‘Go,’ he snapped, and they ran. Valens watched them go for just a moment, then began to work his way up the street back towards the fort, hammering on doors and shouting ‘Danger, open up,’ in both Latin and a rough approximation of the local language. He’d hit five silent, unresponsive doors before he found a house with which he was familiar. Inside he heard playful giggling. Ah yes, Elia. The whore.

Without waiting for a further sound from within, Valens ripped the door open and stepped inside. The low, smoky room was decorated with hangings made from the old military cloaks and scarves of former customers, the bare stone and timber walls in between painted with rough images of what might be asked of the proprietress, uncomfortable and even impractical though some of them looked.

The girl’s child sat giggling on the floor, playing with a lumpy, misshapen wool figure of a sheep. Elia appeared in the doorway to the next room, pulling aside the curtain. The optio drew an uncomfortable breath at the sight, for the girl was half naked, her chest full and very… distracting. She threw him a weary look. ‘I’m sure even you have seen them before, commander.’

Pulling her tunic and shawl from the wall, she pulled the plain grey garment on. ‘What’s this all about?’

‘There may be hostiles closing on the fort. The alarm has gone up.’

She gave him an arch look. ‘Hostile to who, Roman?’

‘I’m Dalmatian, for reference, and hostile to anyone who gets in the way.’

‘You’d be surprised who I can talk around.’

Valens gestured to the playing infant. ‘You willing to bet your son on that?’

‘Fair point. What now, officer Valens?’

‘Get everyone into the safety of the fort. Do you know what houses on this street are occupied? It’ll save me a lot of hammering on doors.’

‘Lugracus the smith, Belliacus the… Belliacus, and Ionas, the owner of the tavern.’

Valens nodded. ‘Come with me.’

Bursting back out into the street, he was dismayed at how much the snowfall had thickened so quickly. Things were becoming less tenable by the moment. Despite the urgency of the situation, he spent a moment helping Elia wrap her child up and then draped her shawl over them both and she gave him an encouraging smile. He liked the whore. He’d never visited her, though he was probably the only soldier who hadn’t, but still he liked her; possibly because he liked her. His mother had followed that same damned profession, had been the lowest of the low, spat on by even slaves, and though he liked Elia, even respected her professionalism and stoic dry sense of humour, he couldn’t bring himself to make use of her services.

But he would make sure she, and every miserable bastard in this place, was safe.

By the time they reached Lugracus’s house, the old smith was already outside, hobbling along on his ancient crutch, his lame leg stumping along in the snow, tool bag of his prized possessions over his sloping shoulders. The old man gave them a nod. ‘The bell?’

‘The bell,’ confirmed Valens. ‘Get to the fort. Trouble’s on the way. I’ll meet you at the gate.’

The old lame smith stumbled on up the road and Valens stopped at the tavern and leaned in to the open door. He could just see the innkeeper standing behind the bar.

‘Trouble coming,’ he shouted across the room, ‘I’m opening the fort gates. We have plenty of room. Come on.’

Ionas frowned at him. ‘Not now.’

‘Now is all you have, man.’

The barman threw him an angry glance. ‘I’m tapping a cask. Won’t take long, but if I stop on the middle’… hissing wet noises now… ‘then I waste a lot of beer.’

‘There’s no time, Jonas. Get to the fort.’

‘I’ll be along presently, once I’ve locked up.’

Valens sighed. ‘Be quick.’

He dipped back out, gesturing for Elia to follow on, and turned the corner, climbing the hill, towards the fort gate. As the heavy double arch came into sight, he stopped at the last house on his journey.

Belliacus. Valens was an amiable person. He got on with almost everyone, but he didn’t get on with Belliacus. In fairness, no one got on with Belliacus.

Reaching up, Valens hammered on the door. ‘Open up, Belliacus. Trouble.’

The door creaked inwards and the optio peered into the darkened interior of the house. It took him a moment to see the shadowy figure lurking in the gloom. ‘Come on,’ he said.

‘How many and who are they?’ came the reply from the gloom.

‘What?’

‘I’m close to the fort alarm bell, officer smart-arse, and I might be old but I ain’t deaf. How many and who?’

‘I don’t know and I don’t know. Come on.’

‘So you’re rounding up all the civilians and you don’t even know why? Not standard practice.’

‘Belliacus, I’d just as soon leave you to fend for yourself, but it’s my duty to try and protect everyone, even the cantankerous old shit heads. Now come on.’

The man who stepped forward into the cold white light in the doorway was of advanced years, perhaps sixty to sixty-five summers.  His hair was iron grey and cut short in a manner fashionable two emperors ago, his face was unusually clean shaven, and his form lean and hard for all its leathery skin and age-lines. Belliacus was wearing a chain shirt of an antiquated design and had a spatha long sword belted at his side. Valens frowned at him. ‘Where did you get those?’

‘Gift from your mother after I slipped her one,’ snapped the old man. ‘Just take these and lead on.’

Valens jerked backwards as a heavy sack was thrust into his hands, and then Belliacus pulled a second sack out of the dark house and slammed the door shut before lifting and shouldering the bag. The optio held the sack back out for the old man to take, but Belliacus ignored him and began to walk up the slope towards the fort gate. The optio sighed. For a moment he seriously considered simply dumping the sack in the road and following on. Cursing his mother, who’d drilled into him a respect for the elderly, he shouldered the sack and walked on.

Outside the gate, three people waited. There was no sign of the two soldiers he’d sent out, but the blacksmith had been joined by two other figures. The hump-backed old woman with one eye that barely opened and a face like a smashed crab he’d seen around on occasion. Hermod the hunter was a more welcome sight, especially since he had his bow in hand and a quiver of a dozen arrows at his hip.

‘Get into the fort,’ Valens called to them.

The gathering made for the gate and the soldier on guard stepped out, thrusting a finger at Belliacus and wagging it angrily. ‘You can’t bring that in here,’ he shouted, clearly gesturing at the sword.

‘Fuck off, infant,’ snapped the old man, brushing past him but otherwise paying him no heed. Valens rolled his eyes as he hurried up to the guard. ‘They can all bring in what weapons they have. I’m going to assemble everyone in the principia courtyard. Anyone else who turns up, send them there. Either on my signal or if Rubellius blows a lung out through his horn, get those gates shut as fast as you can and bar them.’

The soldier saluted and Valens jogged ahead past the small knot of folk. Dropping the old man’s bag unceremoniously into the snow by his feet and drawing a sour look, he spotted Vibius Cestius hurrying his way across the fort. ‘Are the other gates shut?’

‘Shut and barred and all with a solid guard, sir.’

‘Good. Take this lot to the principia and pass the word that I want anyone not on guard to join you. I’ll be along presently.’

Cestius nodded. ‘Yes sir.’

Valens straightened and rolled his shoulders, looking over towards the corner of the fort, where he could just make out the turret standing above the barrack block roofs. Now to find out what it was Rubellius had seen.

As Valens climbed the steps beside the south gate, he lost his footing again for a moment on the slippery stone and had to grasp the wall to prevent a rather undignified fall. A thought occurred to him, and he called back down to the gate guard, who was peering through the cloud of white, waiting for new arrivals. The man looked up.

‘Get two men onto the steps and the walls with a broom and a bag of old fire ashes. I want this whole circuit clear of snow and secured against ice.

The man below saluted and hurried over to a barrack block to find two others. Valens swallowed loudly, hoping that no one came near the gate while the man wasn’t there to close it. In the old days, when the whole cohort was in residence, each stretch of wall between gates and towers was given to one contubernium of men, and there would be at least four men watching every gate. That was when there were five hundred men. With thirty four, watches became a little more stretched. The entire garrison now numbered half that which used to patrol the walls.

Taking a deep breath, the optio hurried on towards the southeast tower, where Rubellius stood atop the parapets, frantically blowing his warning. As the soldier spotted Valens through the cloud of snow, he stopped blowing for a moment to gesture to his commander and point off to the southeast. Well at least that cleared something up: whatever it was he’d seen was coming over the pass, then.

Reaching the tower, Valens pushed his way in through the door and stamped up the stone staircase, bursting out into the freezing cold once more with heaving, icy breaths. Gods, but the snow was getting too thick to see far now.

‘Show me.’

‘I’ll try,’ Rubellius replied, beckoning Valens over to the corner of the tower’s battlements. There, he thrust a finger out towards the pass. The optio looked into the white upon white and grunted.

‘I can’t see a thing.’

‘Keep watching boss, wait for the gusts.’

Fifteen heartbeats passed with the optio becoming steadily more frustrated, but then he saw something. As a chill wind whipped across the pass from the north, temporarily changing the angle of the snowfall, the clouds between here and the pass thinned out. It was not much. A dark smudge against the speckled background of the pass, and at any other time he would have written off the sight as a trick of the eye, but now that he concentrated on it, he could see that it was moving.

‘Jove’s shit, but there must be a lot of them.’

Rubellius nodded. ‘Why do you think I’ve blown so hard I think I ruptured something, sir?’

‘Too much to hope that they’re friendlies.’

Another nod. ‘You realise I’ve been blowing the signal for a while, sir.’

‘Yes.’ Valens turned a confused frown on Rubellius, who seemed to be willing him to think of something. And then he did, and a chill of realisation ran through him right down to his toes. ‘You mean they’ve been coming down like that since you started? That’s not all of them?’

‘That’s the back end, sir.’

‘Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuckitty fuck.’

‘Eloquently put, sir.’

‘We should have followed Rigonorix’s advice and legged it.’

‘Bit late for that, sir.’

Valens nodded. They’d never make it down the valley now without bumping into that lot. He breathed the icy air heavily.

‘I think…’ he began, but stopped, his sentence cut through by a blood-curdling scream from somewhere down the slope across the vicus.

Heart suddenly in his throat, Valens threw out a hand to the soldier. ‘Keep ringing the bell and blowing your horn until the last moment.’ With that, he disappeared into the stairwell and dropped down the steps three steps at a time, safe in the knowledge that the inside ones were not icy. Bursting from the tower doorway, he ran along the south wall to the gate.

Even as he pounded along the stone, he heard a second and then a third scream from somewhere in the vicus. Reaching the top of the gate, he looked out. The street outside the gate was empty, as was the road down the hill as far as he could see, to the curve beside the inn. Hurrying back to the inner side of the gate, he leaned over. With relief he could see once again that soldier who’d been in charge of the gate. Even as he saw the guard, he spotted two men hurrying from a barrack block with a broom and a bag. He looked back down at the soldier below.

‘Shut and bar the gate.’

‘Sir? I don’t think everyone’s in.’

‘Tough shit for them. No one’s coming now. Bar the gate.’

As the soldier got to work, Valens moved back to the battlements and looked out. The snow was now getting thick enough that he could barely see that curve in the road.

‘Come on, you bastards, show yourselves,’ he snarled to himself, peering out into the white. Admittedly, he was not entirely sure he wanted to see them, but somehow knowing they were there and still not being able to see them was worse. It was like looking at fog and wondering from where the bear was going to come at you.

The two soldiers were now working on the stairway up to the gate, one sweeping the drifted snow off into the open fort, the other spreading a thin layer of ash with his shovel on the cleared steps. Valens spent a few moments watching them at their hypnotic work, and followed them to the top of the steps as they disappeared behind the gatehouse, working their way along the wall. Losing sight of them, the optio turned back to the vicus below and started at the sight now awaiting him.

Figures were moving up the street, a mass of dark shapes in the white cloud. He could not make out a great deal of detail, but there were plenty of them, and the silence of their approach was every bit as aggressive as a war cry.

They stopped close to the corner, and for some time nothing happened. Valens felt the hairs rise on the nape of his neck in the eerie silence. The mass of people were clearly shrewd and well-informed. By his estimation, they had stopped about fifteen paces outside effective bow range.

Movement, now. Valens watched, intent and with a dreadful sense of foreboding, as three figures moved out ahead of the rest. The front man was wearing a chain shirt and a bronze helmet, and it took only moments for Valens to realise he was Roman. A man he had seen so very recently, hurrying out of the bath house down the slope.

Damn it, but the man was clearly a goner.

He watched, lip twitching, eyes straining into the snow, as the soldier was made to kneel in the street, his helmet torn off and discarded. One of the two men slapped him a couple of times, and stamped on his leg, and then stepped back as the second figure raised a blade that gleamed in the cold light. The axe fell and made it most of the way through the Roman’s neck. The optio knew his man to be dead already from the way his head lolled around as the executioner pulled the axe back out and took his second strike. This time it went right through and the head rolled free, the body slumping to the side and falling away.

Valens snarled again. He watched long enough to see the crowd produce a stake and anchor it in one of the many holes in the street, before the executioner jammed the soldier’s head on the top. The crowd melted away like a receding tide, taking the decapitated body with them, and leaving just the spiked head. In moments, Valens was bounding down the now slip-free stairs. He threw a finger out at the gate guard. ‘Throw tables, barrels, and anything you can find against that gate and then get up top and keep watch.’

The man saluted. ‘I could do with a hand,sir. You heading for the headquarters building sir?’

Valens nodded. ‘Yes, and I’ll send you support as soon as I’ve spoken to our visiting deserter.’

With that he ripped his sword from his belt and ran into heart of the fort.

Written by SJAT

April 10, 2020 at 9:58 am

Posted in Roman Military

Vengeance – Chapter Two

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Continuing my free story, Vengeance, which is posted every weekday on my Facebook page during this time of Covid-`19 isolation, here is the omnibus of last week’s episodes, and check out my previous post to catch up with chapter 1 first.

 

VENGEANCE (Chapter 2)

 

‘What are you talking about?’ Valens said quietly, catching a concerned look in the medic’s eye as he leaned as close as he dare to the deserter.

‘Will you release me?’

‘Not until I know a great deal more than I do right now and I’m convinced you’re not a dangerous lunatic.’

‘Oh I’m dangerous enough, but I’m the least of your worries. Will you give me a sword?’

‘Shit, no.’

‘Then we have nothing to talk about. I suggest you ask the good optio anything else.’

Valens glared at the prisoner. The man was an accused deserter and murderer, captured and in a fortress manned by half a century of veterans. Why did he sound so damned sure of himself? The optio inched a little closer, trying not to look as though he was ready to leap backwards at a moment’s notice.

‘This block has no windows. It was a workshop until Fulvius took it over, and is now pretty much empty. I’m going to have you locked in here until I get all this cleared up. There will be men on guard outside, covering every angle, so don’t try anything stupid. Consider yourself under arrest.’

The man gave him an appraising look that he really didn’t like, and leaned back on the single cot against the shed wall. ‘I’m going nowhere. I’ll see you when you’re ready to put a sword in my hand.’

‘Or release you, right?’

‘It’ll be too late for that by then.’

Valens stared at the man and tried not to visibly shiver at the danger in those words.

‘Rigonorix,’ the man said.

‘What?’

‘You never asked my name. Julius Rigonorix. Log it in the fort records, so that when the time comes for my tombstone you have it right.’

This time Valens couldn’t hide the shiver. He turned to the medic. ‘Fulvius, is there anything wrong with him?’

‘Physically, he’s fine. A little creaky from cold and exposure I’d say, and with a few knocks and bruises, but nothing life threatening. Mentally is another thing entirely.’

Valens didn’t like the grin the fugitive flashed the medic. ‘If there’s nothing you can do for him, Fulvius, get back out there and go check on the two malingerers. Something tells me we might need them back on duty very soon.’

Fulvius nodded and rose, backing away from the prisoner and making for the exit. Valens followed him, stopping in the door. He opened his mouth to threaten the man again, but he wasn’t sure he was prepared for whatever answer came out of this mysterious killer, and changed his mind. Stepping outside, he closed the door, slipped the padlock through the latch and snapped it shut, locking it and slipping the key into the purse on his belt.

Two soldiers stood outside, looking apprehensive.

‘Watch that building,’ Valens said, pointing at the hut. ‘He doesn’t come out, and you don’t go in. Unless he explodes or evaporates, no one goes in. I’m going to send two more friends for you. I want that hut watched from every angle.’

‘Yes sir. And what next, sir?’

‘I’m going to talk to our two friends from Alauna.’

Stomping across the slushy, muddy street towards the mess block did little to improve Valens’s mood. His left boot leaked by the big toe and he’d spent the entire day avoiding banked snow, pools of slush and the sphagnum moss that formed half the slope between the fort and the parade ground, and now, as the day slowly slid towards dusk, it had begun to fill with damp, soaking one of his five remaining precious woollen socks.

By the time he arrived at the block, he was beyond irritated and moving into ‘smacking the shit out of someone’ territory. Reaching for the door, he slammed it back to see the two soldiers from Alauna sitting at a table, eating bowls of hot broth with their boots steaming next to them and their sodden cloaks draped over a bench.

‘Right,’ he demanded as he slammed the door shut behind him, stomped over to the table and slapped both palms down on it, making both their bowls jump, spilling the contents. ‘Tell me who the fuck Julius Rigonorix is, why he thinks we’re in trouble, and exactly what happened on this hunt of yours.’

‘Have you never had to track a criminal,’ Secundus grunted, then took another mouthful of gruel.

‘Thieves, perverts, maybe the odd lunatic, but nothing like that fucker you brought. And he seems to think we’re in danger. I run this fort and if we’re in danger, I want to know why, now start talking, or I let Rigonorix starve to death in the hut and you two get kicked out into the storm alone.’

Secundus spun, letting his spoon fall, though his friend continued to tuck in like a starving man. ‘Alright, Rigonorix refused orders. When the centurion ordered him disciplined, he took the vitis stick from the man’s hand and hit him around the head so hard he smashed the man’s skull. The centurion lasted two hours before he died. He bit his own tongue off before the end. You’ve never seen so much blood.’

‘Alright, yes, the man might be a bastard, but I want to know the details.’

‘The prefect sent us after him. We followed him up into the hills. Stupidly, this snow is not so deep on our side of the Carvetii lands. It was only when we got into the real hills and over this way we saw real weather trouble. A blizzard started and his tracks were easy to follow. We traced him to a local village.’

‘So far so old news. Tell me what happened in the village? Or why he disobeyed orders in the first place. Or why he thinks we’re in danger.’

‘He’s a criminal,’ Secundus said. ‘It’s in his nature to be a disobedient arsehole. He lies. He probably wants you to let him free. He’s dangerous.’

‘I’m sure he is, but I also believe him. What happened in the village?’

Secundus sat back and straightened, pushing his bowl away. ‘The first thing to remember about Julius Rigonorix is that he’s a native.’

‘What?’

‘Name’s a bit of a giveaway. Rigonorix’s mother is Carvetii.’

Valens leaned closer, eyes narrowing. ‘That doesn’t make a man a criminal. Tell me about the village.’

‘There was still eight of us then,’ Optio Secundus grunted, pausing to take a slurp of the broth. ‘You got beer?’

‘You’re lucky we’ve got broth. Get on with it.’

‘There was a young lad with us – a German, who was a good hunter. He managed to follow Rigonorix through all sorts of places, and he led us to a village.’

‘A shite hole,’ corrected his friend between mouthfuls of food.

‘Yes, a shite hole. Half a dozen mud huts and a pen of scraggy looking sheep. At least that’s what we thought. It was starting to snow when we arrived, and we found the biggest hut, assuming it to be the head man. We demanded he tell us where Rigonorix was. He claimed not to know, but our German confirmed the quarry had not left the village. Albanus, who was a dangerous bastard in his own right, took the head man’s daughter and threatened her. Lo and behold, it turned out Rigonorix was hiding out with a family.’

‘This is all sounding organised so far.’

‘That’s where it stopped. We barged open the door to that family’s hut and my first man died getting into the doorway. Arrow in the throat. By the time Albanus pushed him out of the way, they were ready for us. Rigonorix was with them, fighting alongside ‘em. Don’t know whether they owed him something, but they fought to the death for him. I was the last man in.’

‘Heroic.’

‘Don’t take the piss. You’re an optio, so you know we lead from the back. I was the last one in. By the time I got in, only Rigonorix, Dentio here, and the German were still standing. My two had Rigonorix restrained, and everyone else was dead. Well, that was only one hut. If every hut in that shite hole was as well stocked with rebels, then we stood less chance than a vestal in a barrack block. We legged it. Grabbed Rigonorix and ran out into the storm.’

Valens frowned. ‘And the German?’

‘Died of his wounds two hours later.’ We got lost in the storm. We’d been meaning to head east again and go home, but somehow we wound up crossing the mountains in the worst weather. I’ve never been so glad as I was to see your fort.’

‘That might change,’ Valens said darkly. ‘So Rigonorix was related to these villagers?’

‘Might have been. If you’ve spoken to him you’ll have learned what a talker he is. All I know is he’s part of their tribe.’

‘And because of him, you killed a bunch of Carvetii in a village.’

‘Yes.’

Valens huffed. ‘If even a couple of dozen angry villagers could be arsed to follow you across mountains in a storm for revenge, then they’re going to have trouble getting to you here.’ He leaned back. ‘But things still don’t add up. The way the fugitive talks you’d think a cohort of renegade praetorians was coming for us, not a few angry villagers with pitch forks. What aren’t you telling me?’

Secundus turned back to his broth, slurped again, and then breathed deeply. ‘Nothing. Listen, you have the facts. Rigonorix is hardly denying the accusation. He told you himself that he did it. We are loyal, serving soldiers with a fugitive criminal in tow. Give us adequate supplies and some helpful directions and we’ll be out of your hair in the morning. Then if half an angry village turns up you can tell them we left for Alauna. Everyone’s happy.’

Valens chewed the inside of his cheek. ‘I’m not happy. There’s things I don’t know about here. You might not be lying, but you haven’t told me the whole truth. I’ll have one of the lads assign you a barrack block and bring you some dry blankets. Stay there for the night. If I find you wandering around in my fort I’ll assume you’re causing trouble and I’ll have you arrested and thrown in with Rigonorix.’

‘Your call, Optio.’

Valens left the building, walking out into a flurry of snow that announced the onset of the next storm. He’d learned a lot in a short time from Secundus, yet for some reason he felt more uncertain about things than ever. Despite it all, though, he was convinced that Rigonorix’s doom-laden words were no bluff.

In a few heartbeats Valens was climbing the snowy, slippery steps back up to the wall top and then skittering along the parapet. He could see the four men on watch from here: big Rubellius at the corner overlooking the pass, weaselly little Pollio at the highest tower overlooking the road up to the parade ground, Porcius at the west end of the civil settlement outside and Ampelius with a view down the wide valley towards the sea. Well, on a good day, anyway. Right now all four had a visual range of about half a mile and as the cloud lowered and the snow thickened, that would quickly drop to virtually nothing.

Reaching Rubellius first, he leaned on the battlements beside the big man and peered off up at the pass. That was not the direction from which the troublesome party had come, but if they were from Alauna Brigantium, that was the direction in which their fort lay, many miles away over the hills. They had got lost since leaving the village, and that meant they could have come from anywhere. Over the pass was one of the more likely directions for the village. He’d have liked to have known more about the village, but there were so many unrecorded settlements in this region, Rigonorix was unlikely to be talkative, and Secundus apparently knew nothing more about the place.

‘Keep alert,’ he told Rubellius.

‘For what, boss?’

‘I don’t really know yet. Trouble’s heading our way, and it could come as a handful of angry farmers or a fired-up warband.’

‘In half an hour I won’t be able to see as far as the pass,’ the big man noted.

‘I know. Just do your best. And the moment you see anything bigger than a blackbird, sound the alarm, no matter who it is.’

Rubellius nodded and Valens hurried on round the walls, watching out over the white countryside as he went. Across the valley whence the three men had come, as likely a source for trouble as any. Pollio acknowledged the order, as did the other two as the optio passed around the fort’s wall, checking for trouble. Having spoken to the lookouts, he hurried back to the gate where Vibius Cestius lurked in the shadows.

‘Seal this gate,’ Valens said, pointing at the bar that stood beside the wooden doors. ‘Then get to the east and west gate and have them sealed. I want the only way in or out to be the south gate above the vicus. Meet me there when you’re done.’

Cestius nodded and wandered over to the bar, lifting it with a grunt and sliding it into place. Valens left him to it as he hurried across the fort to the remaining gate. Was he being too cautious? Was any of this necessary? He only had the word of an admitted murderer that trouble was coming, after all, and Secundus seemed less inclined to worry. Putting the fort on alert would cause tension. But if there was something to the warning of Rigonorix, then it would be best to be prepared.

Reaching the gate, he pointed down the slope across the vicus. At the lowest point, past all the crumbling timber shacks, sat the small stone bath house that served the fort.

‘Is there anyone in the baths?’

The man at the gate, as yet unaware of any threat shrugged. ‘Two men, I think, sir. Though they’ve been gone a while. They might have stopped in the tavern.’

Valens chewed his lip. Ordering off-duty men back to the fort when they were bathing or boozing was not a path to popularity, but it was still prudent.

‘Keep this gate open but be wary.’

‘What for, sir?’

‘I don’t know. Just keep your eyes and ears open.’

And with that he stepped through the gate and walked out into the snow.

The street of the vicus led down from the gate at a fairly steep gradient, curving round to the left and heading for the main road, such as it was, over the pass. The bath house sat at the far end of the civil settlement, and though its shape was hidden behind various buildings, Valens could see the steam rising from a roof aperture and knew it to be the bathing establishment at work.

The settlement, like the fort, was little more than a largely empty shell in which a tiny population rattled around. There had been a hundred civilians or more out here at the place’s height. Now, at last count, there were twelve, and most of them only stayed because they were old, or crippled, or misfits with nowhere else to go.

There were no figures in the street, no torches or lamps in the doorways, with the exception of the Boot and Bullock tavern and even that looked empty as the optio passed, a single lamp guttering deep in its heart like the gleam in the gimlet eye of a madman.

The bath house was small, even for a private military affair, just a single range with the hot room at one end, the warm room in the middle and the cold room at the other. A small circular laconium steam room led off to one side and unlike the larger establishments at the important forts, the changing room here was a wooden porch tacked on to the cold end with no slaves to hand.

Passing the last few empty and silent houses of the vicus, Valens made his way around to the end of the bath house. Two military tunics hung on hooks under the porch and two pairs of boots and two cloaks kept them company. Despite the door leading into the cold end of the bath house, with the weather being what it was at the moment, the inside still felt comparatively tropical. Having stepped under the wooden porch and out of the ever-increasing snowfall, the optio removed his helmet and shook out his hair, scratching his beard. Sticking his head in through the door, he shouted.

‘Soldiers of the Fourth Dalmatian, this is Optio Valens. A situation has arisen. I need you both out, dry and dressed and ready to return to the fort immediately.’

A muffled comment issued from the far end of the baths. Valens couldn’t quite hear it, but it sounded sarcastic and was accompanied by a snigger from a second man.

‘Get your stinking, hairy arses out here by the time I count to ten or you’re doing Pollio’s laundry for a month,’ he bellowed, and was gratified by the sound of sudden furious activity and a splashing noise. He stepped back out of the porch and turned his face skyward, letting the flakes of white settle on his eyelids, soothing them. Everything seemed so peaceful for a moment.

Then he heard it. A bell, ringing up at the fort. And not just ringing; it was ongoing, panicked. How long had it been ringing? Had it started before he’d even got here? That was not the quiet, rhythmic clang that told him Rubellius had spotted a horse and cart coming over the pass. That was the desperate clatter of a man knowing the shit was flowing his way and he was wedged in the sewer.

‘Now!’ Valens bellowed into the doorway, jamming his helmet back on.

Ah, shit.

Written by SJAT

April 6, 2020 at 7:44 am

Posted in Roman Military

Vengeance – Chapter One

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Good morning from Casa Turney on this fine isolated locked-down day. As you may (or may not) know, during this troubled time, a bunch of authors (see the above banner and Twitter #AuthorsWithoutBorders) have been writing brand new serialised stories daily on our Facebook pages. Well, we’ve reached the end of week one, and many of us are now pulling together an omnibus of the week’s storytelling. Here, then, is my own Roman tale, week 1. If you want to continue reading, the next section will be up here on Monday and they will continue again until Friday, when I shall post week 2 here on the blog.

So without further ado…

Vengeance

The icy wind whipped across the pass like Hekate’s breath, ripping the air from the lungs with its chilly blast and carrying flakes of the day’s snowfall, which had not so much stopped for the night as paused to regroup. The grey peak of Mons Mortus hung over the fort like a pre-payday bar bill, glowering and bringing unhappiness to all who saw it. And seeing it was hard not to do, the way it loomed so against a sky so grey that, were it not for the snow, it would be hard to tell where rock stopped and heavens begun.

The middle-aged, po-faced shape of Optio Aelius Valens paused at the rampart’s southeast corner to pull his blade from its sheath, grunting with difficulty as it stuck momentarily. It was not that he needed it now, mind, but in weather of this temperature you had to keep easing the blade out every now and then, else when you did need it it would undoubtedly be stuck fast. The wind howled mercilessly across the wall top, making him shiver uncontrollably. It never ceased to amaze him that no matter how many winters you passed up here, you never got used to that wind.

‘Any activity?’ he hissed, then clamped his mouth shut, toothache already threatening.

Rubellius, his enormous muscular arms nearer blue than pink, turned a face mostly covered with frost-rimed beard to his officer, and clenched his teeth for a moment to stop them chattering before he spoke.

‘Not much. The blacksmith’s been out gathering fuel for his fire, but no one else. No movement. No one would be stupid enough to be out in this, unless it was for the senate and the people of Rome, I suppose, sir.’

Valens snorted. He’d never seen Rome, any more than anyone else in the Fourth Cohort of Dalmatians. In fact, since he’d signed up at Salona he’d seen nothing but the empire’s very periphery. And it didn’t get much more peripheral than Mediobogdum.

The fort sat on a spur of land, overlooking a deep green valley that marched off down to the sea at the edge of the world, and under a peak that towered over a pass connecting the coast to the lead mining region between here and Galava. Twenty years ago, when the fort had been built it had been important, a full garrison post that had supported a growing civilian settlement. Five hundred soldiers, with half as many hangers-on clustered outside the walls. Then the new emperor, Antoninus, had moved the border of Britannia north, and any hint of importance had been torn from Mediobogdum, all the province’s military focus shifted to this new wall of the emperor’s.

The installation on the spur had become little more than a ghost fortress. Most of the cohort had been transferred back across the sea, just one century left for a year or two as a skeleton garrison, half the men up here under Valens, half down at Glannoventa down on the coast under the centurion. The remit: look after the pass. Nothing more.

Valens looked up at the snow-clogged nightmare crossing. As if any arsehole was going to try that in winter…

The optio sighed as he leaned on the wall top beside the big soldier, the futility of it all weighing down on him almost as heavily as the mountain above. ‘It’s ridiculous… garrisoning a fort like this, I mean. As if there are likely to be any lead convoys to protect these days. And half a dozen misfit civilians languishing in that shit-hole of a rundown vicus outside too, while everyone else has left.’ He turned to the soldier, lines of irritation carved deep in his veteran features. ‘And it’s especially pointless in weather like this. We’ve got so much barrack space going spare you could quarter the whole valley inside the walls and there are thirty four of us. I’ve half a mind to invite the civilians into the fort.’

Rubellius snorted. ‘Living up here you’ll be lucky to hold on to even half a mind for long.’

‘Less of that lip, soldier,’ Valens responded, though with no real conviction. The man was right, after all. It would be easy to go crazy wintering here in near isolation. ‘Tomorrow morning, I’m going to bring them inside.’

‘The centurion’ll tear you a second arsehole if you do, sir.’

‘The centurion’s ten miles away and thirty shits that he doesn’t give away from here, and he doesn’t give a rat’s arse what we do. If he cared, he’d have checked on us at least  once since the snowfalls started.’

Slapping a hand on the big man’s shoulder, the optio turned away from the view over the silent vicus and the snow-clogged road up to the pass. Wandering back along the wall walk, he passed the east gate and made for the northern corner of the fort, where a turret stood on a rocky hump, the highest point around the entire circuit. As he walked, Valens cursed, his foot coming down badly on a patch of ice that sent him skittering in an ungainly manner until he thumped into the parapet, winding himself and bruising his arm.

A quick glance ahead as he righted himself revealed the figure of the soldier on guard up there – a short, narrow man who oozed slyness and dishonesty like a rat in an oiled snakeskin. Pollio. The optio wasn’t sure he was ready for a conversation with the rodent-like soldier right now and, shrugging off the pain in his arm from the wall, he turned instead to the stairs down to the fort interior. It was only as he placed his first foot on the top step and realised he was going to have to negotiate this carefully that he became aware of a distant voice. Glancing this way and that to identify its source, he spotted Pollio waving at him, calling him over.

It looked as though the optio was not to be spared the little man’s rabid wit after all. Stepping back onto the wall walk, Valens hurried along, climbing towards that turret at the north corner and gripping the parapet for stability on the icy surface. With some difficulty he reached the doorway and stepped inside the tower, making the most of the temporary shelter from the wind, then climbed the stairs to the turret top.

The rat-like soldier was almost vibrating with urgency as Valens stepped out into a fresh blast of bitter cold. The optio frowned. Few things got the man so excitable, except perhaps when the dice came up well and he managed to fleece his tent mates out of their silver. Valens hurried over.

‘What’s got into you? Hole in your crotch letting in draft in?’

‘You won’t piggin’ believe this, boss,’ the little man said, and thrust out a calloused finger to the north.

Valens followed the gesture, his gaze crossing the parapet, the steep hillside that fell away into the deep valley and then back up the stark, white-clad hillside beyond. It took him moments to see the small but distinct shapes of three figures half-walking, half-tumbling down the slope in the direction of the fort.

‘You’ve got to be fucking kidding me,’ Valens said, staring out into the bleakness.

Hurrying along the wall, Valens kept his gaze locked on the figures across the valley. Throwing a finger back up at the tower, he bellowed into the wind.

‘Pollio, sound the alarm.’

By the time he’d reached the northwest gate, the diminutive soldier back up on the tower was doing a passable impression of a musician by honking tunelessly into a horn with a result that sounded like a cow being slowly crushed to death. A bell, Valens thought irritably, we need a bell that he can’t ruin.

At the gate, the soldier on guard was no more welcome a sight than Pollio had been. Vibius Cestius was unsettling to say the least. He been a new recruit last year, one of a swathe that had somewhat bucked the age requirements. Probably fifteen summers old, and looking it, he had the style and mode of speech of a middle-aged world-weary orator, and hair as white as the snow in spite of his black eyebrows. He always seemed to be looking through Valens as if seeing something important behind him,but it was his eyes that really creeped the optio out. Like mismatched gems, glittering in dark caverns.

‘Cestius,’ he called, ‘get that gate open, just one door. We’ve got visitors.’

At the alarm, men were now falling out of barrack doorways, mostly complaining about the din, but all strapping on sword belts, tying helmet straps or shouldering shields. Valens stood atop the gate on the wall walk, and peered out into the white. Almost as if on cue, a flake of snow large enough that it ought to have its own name settled on his nose. Damn it, but the next deluge was coming any moment.

It was impossible to tell anything about the three figures he could see across the valley. It looked like either one man running from two more, or three men competing to get to the gate first, but whatever the case there was a distinct urgency to it. Valens watched them slide down a steep section and then begin to pound as swiftly as they could through the knee deep snow. They were still little more than black shapes against the white.

Friend or foe? A question as old as time, and one upon which safety and peril danced together. Should he let them it and then interrogate them, or hold them at the gate? There were only three of them, and the weather was worsening. Still, the centurion would keep the gate closed until he knew everything. That decided Valens more than anything. He was going to let them in.

Behind him, soldiers were falling into line across the road close to the gate, chain shirts still rumpled and out of shape, shields disordered, some with helmets and some just in felt hats, only half of them with scarves and maybe a third with cloaks. They were a fucking shambles and he loved them for it, because no matter what they looked like, they were mad and dangerous bastards to a man.

‘Three men incoming. They all come in through the gate, but no one gets any further without getting punctured, got me?’

‘They run for it, we stick ‘em. Got it boss,’ one of the lads grunted.

‘Looks like one native, two soldiers,’ Cestius murmured.

Valens peered out into the white. They still looked like three black stickmen to him. ‘How in Hades can you tell?’

‘Man out front is wearing furs and running. Other two gleam. Bronze helmets and chain shirts.’

‘You heard the freak,’ Valens shouted. ‘Brace yourself for a panicky native and two soldiers.’

Valens stood in the gate and watched the three approaching figures, aware of the shuffling of people behind him as the men of his half century prepared themselves for the unknown. He squinted out into the white as the moments passed, making out what he could of the three figures as they reached the bottom of the valley.

Though there was no real reason for it, what he really wanted was to be able to prove Cestius the weird bastard wrong, but as they approached, it became clearer and clearer that the lead figure was dressed more or less like a native hunter, while the men following on were dressed very much like the soldiers of the fort’s garrison.

‘Trouble comes in threes,’ Cestius murmured, glaring into the white.

‘What?’ Valens was becoming irritated with the young soldier now.

‘Trust me. Give them bread and cheese and send them on down to Glannoventa, sir.’

‘Let’s just see what they have to say, soldier.’

They waited. As the three figures staggered and scrambled up the steep slope towards them, snowflakes increasing in number with every heartbeat and all driven at gale force, horizontally, Valens watched them and made out more and more detail.

The lead character could easily be a native, but for one thing: as they came closer, Valens became increasingly convinced that the man was wearing a good old-fashioned soldier’s tunic. That made it all the more curious that he appeared to be either being chased or escorted by two men wearing auxiliary uniforms. The optio chewed his lip. In truth, it might be prudent just to send them on down to the centurion ten miles down the valley. Gah, but he wanted to know what was behind this too much, though.

The figures hurried up the slope and Valens, a moment of unaccustomed common sense creeping in, gestured for Cestius and another soldier to close in with pila levelled. No point in taking chances, after all.

The lead runner struggled up into the gateway, coming to a halt in front of the two pila points.

‘In the name of the army of the emperor Titus Aelius Hadrianus Antoninus Pius, I seek shelter here from the men chasing me.’

Valens narrowed his eyes at the man. The runner had a short, military haircut, gone wild like most soldiers of a Britannic winter, and a beard that could just as easily be Roman as Briton these days. Blood soaked several areas of his furs and tunic, though he exhibited no other sign of injury. The optio was trying to decide what to say as the two soldiers behind the man slid to a halt. Ignoring the danger of facing the pila of Valens’ men, one of the pair immediately threw himself at the first runner, sword out, tip touching jugular as the man grimaced. The other spread his hands, addressing Valens.

‘This man is a deserter from the Second Raetorum at Alauna Brigantium.’ Even as he spoke, his friend produced a noose of rope as if from nowhere and slipped it around the lead man’s arms, pulling it tight and dragging his wrists together, drawing a grunt of pain.

Valens frowned at the man. ‘You don’t seem to be resisting them. Is this true?’

The deserter shrugged. ‘Depends on your definitions I suppose.’

He snorted in distress as his captor kicked him in the back of the knee, dropping him to the ground, where he looked up at the optio. ‘Give me the nod and I’ll send these fuckers to Hades and be out of your hair.’

Valens sighed. Yup. He should have turned them away even before they spoke.

‘You,’ Valens said, pointing at the man kneeling in the snow and glowering at his captors, ‘stand up.’ He turned to the men of his unit. ‘Get him to the capsarius for a check over. Don’t loose his bonds, though.’

As his men hurried forward to take the deserter, the two men who had chased him in lurched forward, ready to grab him, but Valens stepped forward, growling like a feral dog. ‘You two, hands off. You touch him before I get to the bottom of this and you’ll be leaving here a few teeth short.’

The pair looked at one another, and the men at the rear stepped forward. ‘Mind your tongue, soldier, when you speak to a superior.’

‘My arse.’

The man snarled. ‘Optio Secundus, Third Century, Second Raetian Cohort.’

Valens gave the man his most infuriating grin. ‘Piss off, Secundus. Optio Aelius Valens, Third Century, Fourth Dalmatian Cohort.’

The man’s eyes narrowed. ‘You’ve no optio’s crest or staff.’

‘Neither have you, knobhead.’

‘How long in service?’

‘Doesn’t matter,’ Valens smiled. ‘I’m not acknowledging any seniority from you for a sake of months in. This is my fort, not yours, so you follow my orders. Got it?’

Secundus glowered but, seeing the bristling anger among the men in the street and knowing he’d lost, gave a single nod.

‘Good,’ Valens snapped. ‘Now you and your donkey here follow me.’

As the two new arrivals stomped after him through the snow, Vibius Cestius closed the gate behind them. The lines of men separated for Valens to pass through, and then closed just enough to make it uncomfortable for the two new arrivals to squeeze past. Valens led them between the barrack blocks to the building used as a hospital by the unit’s medic. As they opened the door, a waft of warm stench rolled out over them. A combination of garlic, old socks and some kind of unguent that curled the nose hairs, Valens was used to it, though the look on the faces behind him was priceless.

Inside, Fulvius, the medic, was looking the blood-soaked fugitive over, lifting furs gingerly and examining the tunic and then the flesh beneath. ‘None of this is yours,’ he pronounced irritably in the end, stepping back.

‘No.’

‘Then whose is it?’ Valens asked, approaching.

‘A combination of a few locals and my men,’ snapped Secundus behind him.

‘Oh?’ Valens turned. ‘He killed soldiers?’

‘That’s why he’s out here. He killed our centurion and ran from Alauna. The bastard needed taking down so much that I was sent out with a contubernium into the blizzard to bring him in. We’ve been tracking him since yesterday morning.’

‘And the blood?’

‘We found him hiding in a native settlement.’

‘And?’ Valens was starting to get annoyed now.

‘And the bastard took down six of my men before he escaped again.’

‘Lies,’ the fugitive said. ‘The villagers killed four of them. I only killed two.’

Valens turned to the man, an eyebrow raised. ‘You don’t deny that? Or the centurion I take it?’

‘Centurion deserved it. Any right-thinker would have put a blade in him. The other two were regrettable, but if it’s me or them, then it’s them.’

Valens huffed and turned back to the two soldiers behind him. Go outside and ask for Lancarius. He can cook passably, and even make a rat edible. You need food and warmth. I’ll be along shortly. I need to talk to your prisoner.’

‘He’ll run,’ Secundus snapped. ‘He’s dangerous.’

‘I don’t doubt it, but there’s half a century in this fort.’

‘I’ll stay.’

‘No you won’t. Go eat and warm up. That’s an order, Optio Secundus.

The man’s lip wrinkled, but with an expression of vile distaste, he turned and left. As the two men departed and the door closed, Valens fixed his gaze on the man and gestured to the medic beside him. ‘This is Fulvius. He’s a passable medic, but a damn fine butcher and he’s got things in his kit that make a gladius look like a spongia. You and I are going to have a chat, and you’re going to tell me the truth, or I let Fulvius play.’

‘I think you might want to leave chit-chat to later,’ the fugitive smiled nastily.

‘Oh? Why?’

‘Because the tidal wave of shit coming your way will drown you all if you don’t run.’

Written by SJAT

March 27, 2020 at 8:55 am

Isolation Freebie

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Hello world.

While my life generally involves locking myself away in my home office and forgetting the outside world exists anyway, suddenly a large sector of society is suffering isolation. Hopefully you’ve all got the supplies you need to see you through and you’re not suffering. Keeping yourself busy and your spirits up at times like this is important, and so feel free to click on the links below to download my collection of short stories for free in several formats. Stay safe and stay well, people.

Tales of Ancient Rome (PDF copy)

Tales of Ancient Rome (Epub Copy)

Tales of Ancient Rome (Kindle Copy)

Written by SJAT

March 17, 2020 at 10:51 am

Posted in Short Story

Spatha by M. C. Bishop

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I’m going to guess that anyone who knows my work or reads this blog is pretty conversant with military history, and therefore probably knows of Osprey Publishing’s renown in that field. I am the owner of scores of their books ranging from the days of ancient Greece to the Renaissance war galley, though more than half of them are on the subject of Rome and Byzantium. I love my Osprey books, and while I laud them above most military history works, even I can admit that they vary a little in quality. Some are a little assumptive and bold, others more technical and trustworthy. All are good, but from the point of view of a historical researcher one has to be aware of such things. So that’s Osprey. Leaders in their field.

Mike (M. C., which I know makes him sound like a DJ) Bishop is a name I count as a go-to for all things Roman military. Along with John Coulson, he is the preeminent authority on Roman military equipment, having studied it for decades, been involved in the archaeology that has brought some of it to light, written up the excavation reports for some of the most important of Roman military sites, and been a leading light in Roman military circles for some time. His is one of at most half a dozen names that I trust implicitly when I read their work, whether it be on military equipment or a guide to walking Hadrian’s Wall (also his excellent work.)

So when Bishop signed on to do a few ‘weapon’ books for Osprey, I knew these would be up there with the best of their titles. Pilum and Gladius I already have, and have reviewed. Now, he has turned his considerable talent to informing us about the Roman longsword, the spatha.

Spatha is a book that contains everything you need to know about the weapon. There is no need to consult another source. From the archaeological discoveries, largely based on ‘bog finds’ in Northern Europe, Bishop gives us immense detail of the form, composition, design, distribution, use and value of the weapon. Backing this up with accounts from sources such as the Historia Augusta, Arrian and Tacitus, every angle is explored. I consider myself knowledgeable about the subject from years of study, and yet I learned a number of things from reading this work, not least about the development of the ‘semispatha’ as a compromise between the long slashing weapon and the short stabbing weapon, often formed from re-pointing broken spathas.

From the development of the weapon based upon the original Spanish Sword, to the influence the blade would have on following centuries of cultures right to the late Viking era, Bishop provides a detailed narrative that attempts to fill in the gaps in the historical record with source-based logic, never even leaning towards assumptions without giving caveats and explanations, and identifies a number of unexpected aspects that cannot be denied.

Complete with wonderful illustrations from reconstructive paintings, through photographs of artefacts, to technical line drawings, this is the only book you’ll ever need on the subject and joins its peers as one of my go-to texts for research when writing Roman novels.

Written by SJAT

February 21, 2020 at 8:30 pm

Finding Agricola – a review of texts (pt 2)

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And I’m back with another 4 ancient Rome texts I’ve been using to research Gnaeus Julius Agricola. My first example is

With my Agricola research, I’ve looked at the effects of his civil governance, largely through Hertfordshire and Chester, and his early campaigns against Boudicca and in Wales. But the prime evidence of Agricola is the northern campaigns, and that starts in Yorkshire, more or less with the fortress of Eboracum. As such this book was a given, because York is also my local legionary fortress and a favourite haunt.

The author is a curator of the Yorkshire Museum, and it is this fact that largely informs the book. After an initial foray into the reasons Roman York exits, its founding, its form and its archaeological history, the majority of the book covers both the Legionary fortress and the civilian settlement in terms of subject. One at a time, he covers religion, burial, art, architecture, and so on. Each subject is built up for the reader and displayed in terms of finds in the museum’s collection.

In truth, the coverage of Agricolan activity was minimal and nothing I could not have taken from another book, but as a guide to Roman York, or even as a basic text on the Roman world, it has much to offer. The images are fabulous, there are a few gem-like nuggets of info in particular, and the whole thing is well presented and authoritative.

Anyone with an interest in military history is surely aware of the books of Osprey publishing. Most of their titles are excellent, and this is, in fact, one of the best. Where Simon Forder’s book (previous review) proposes, based upon camps, a site for the final battle against the Caledonii not far from Perth, this book centres on the more traditional assumption of Bennachie.

The book covers the Roman frontier north of Hadrian’s Wall from their first arrival in the region to the end of the Severan era. Fully half the book is devoted to the Agricolan campaigns and to the Gask Ridge system, both of which are pertinent to me, and both are covered in detail and with a good deal of authority. Indeed, the rest of the book which covers the Antonine era and the Antonine Wall is also very good, if less pertinent for me at the moment.

As with all Osprey books, this is a good historical book, yet an easy read. Accurate and still light, accompanied by illustrations and maps galore. One of their best.

I’ve had this book for a long time and used it in many circumstances. Though now more than 40 years old (like myself!) it remains a solid and respectable text, and few writers could hope to better it. In truth I’ve never read it cover to cover. This remains one of my textbooks I dip in and out of for specific details.

In this case, I was studying the civic centre of early Verulamium at Saint Albans, which has supplied one of only two pieces of epigraphic evidence for Agricola’s governorship. In truth, I learned far more about the specific subject than I expected, the level of research, deep into the archaeology, exceeds what I needed, but that is Wacher’s book. It is no gleaming starter for new students, but a detailed and archaeologically informed work.

In essence I have yet to find a book on the subject that matches Wacher, whether you are looking for a more wide-spread study of the nature of Roman towns or their development, or specific treatments of individual towns to street and building level.

This is one of my most prized, go-to texts on the subject. Wooliscroft and Hoffman are the preeminent academics on the subject of the Gask Ridge frontier system, and their in-depth knowledge of Roman Scotland is hard to match. Indeed, they run the Roman Gask Project, which is revealing more of the system every year. Moreover, this book focuses only on the Flavian era, which makes the whole thing pertinent to my research.

The book is divided into two parts, with the first being the archaeology of the sites which the authors can put forth largely from personal knowledge, divided into regional groups of like sites. The second is an interpretation of this and the conclusions that can be drawn from it.

I will state at the outset that this book is not for everyone. Whereas Roman York will appeal to the beginner, and the Osprey book to most, and Wacher moves more into the wordy and academic, this book is one of the best available, but with its level of archaeological basis it might be a little dry and detailed for anyone who is not thoroughly invested in the subject,

So there we go. Four more books in my research pile. There are many more to go, so look out for a third review at some point.

Written by SJAT

October 21, 2019 at 12:42 pm

Finding Agricola – a review of texts (pt 1)

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You may or may not know that I am currently departing from the world of fiction briefly to pen a non-fiction work on the life and career of Gnaeus Julius Agricola, ‘The man who conquered Britain’. As such, I have probably read more texts on the subject than any other I have covered in my life. Seriously, the research pile might rival Trajan’s column. And having worked through many books, I am forming opinions of them as I go. Since currently I rarely seem to have time to read fiction, and my book reviews have taken a major back seat, I thought to myself ‘why not review the books I am reading, then?’ So I am. There have been many, but due to time constraints I’m going to look at them four at a time. So if you have an interest in the formation of Roman Britain and you want to know what to read, here’s part one of my review/guide to the subject:

Alright, I hear you. Agricola was in the 80s, along with bands like the Cure, while Hadrian’s Wall wasn’t built until the 120s. I make it my job to acquire all books on subjects that fascinate me, and I pick up HW books at a rate of knots. This one, being written by the most excellent Pat Southern, I could hardly miss. Her books are uniformly great. And having flicked through it I realised that there was a section in the early part on ‘Before the wall’ that delved nicely into Agricola’s time. And unlike many other books out there which have a chapter or less on the man in relation to another subject, this book was pretty sharp, in depth and challenging on our fave general. In fact, it contributed more nuggets of info to my notes than some books that are more or less centred on him. So this book is already a win, just on ‘before the wall’.

Books on the wall tend to fall into categories. ‘What it was like’, ‘What it’s like now’, archaeological treatises and suchlike. And there are many books. What Southern has done here, which was nice, is to cut across all the current literature and produce a nice one-piece book that explores almost every aspect of the wall’s history, purpose, archaeology, life and so on. Never does is dip too deeply into academia (and I have read texts that try to make analysis of pot-sherds in Agricolan Scotland sound like The Dirty Dozen and fail dismally, so steering clear of ‘too-dry’ is to be commended.) But equally it does not gloss over, or miss out. It is, in effect, just deep enough that the scholar will still find something that makes them ponder and question and say ‘ooh, I didn’t know that’, while the amateur enthusiast will not become bogged down in archaeological detail. It’s a lovely read and highly recommended.

For me, of all the texts I’ve used, this one presents me with the most problems, because there is something nagging that I didn’t like about it, but other than that it is one of my favourite books on Roman Britain. As such, I recommend it, but will provide a caveat. This book follows the history of Roman Britain chronologically, attacking each ‘era’ as a chapter, from initial Roman contact to the withdrawal and beyond. And it is really well written. I mean you could read this purely for leisure and consider it a win.

The up? Other than readability? It is fairly wide-ranging and probes well into each era and subject, providing a great deal of material (and I concentrated on Agricola, of course). It is written with occasional touches of dry humour, a lot of reference to sources and clearly a great deal of academia behind each revelation. What it does do, unfortunately, in my opinion, is occasionally make leaps in judgement. It has a tendency on occasion to state as fact something that might well be argued against, and I find that a little naughty in a textbook. It is what put me off getting more than partway through Dando-Collins’s book on the legions. But if you can either ignore such occasional points, or are happy with blissful ignorance of them, this book still has a great deal to offer and is eminently readable. Recommended, with said caveat.

To some extent this book irked me greatly, because it recently came out and covers half of what I was planning with my own manuscript. Damn the man! But then at least the angle for this book is different. The book focuses on Agricola’s great battle and the evidence that surrounds it, examining everything from geography to contemporary accounts. It covers my subject thoroughly, but from that fairly focused point of view, while my own work will be a broader subject, concentrating on Agricola more than the critical part he played in Scotland. In his own words, he has gone beyond Agricola for there is more to the subject that the man himself, while I will be doing in some ways the opposite.

Forder has done his research well, as I can attest, having done much of it myself. I now kick myself that I didn’t read this first, which might well have cut out a whole chunk of my required research. It is presented not chronologically, as a story, but more by subject, as Forder delves into what he concludes and why he does so, leading to his endgame. His reference to archaeological and historical evidence is excellent, and the book, while perhaps not having the easy readability of the previous tome, is much more accurate and laudable. Buy this book, but buy it now so that your wallet is full again when my Agricola comes out!

This book I bought on a bit of a tangent. In planning my own book, I knew I needed to revisit many sites of Agricolan interest in Scotland, and to visit some I’d never been to. This book had just come out. It is my third gazetteer-like tome of Roman sites in Scotland, but the prettiest! I’ll say from the outset that it’s also my favourite.

A listing by geographical region and then by a-z of all Roman sites in Scotland, it covers everything from the impressively visible to the ‘vanished under a housing estate’. That’s both wonderful and occasionally frustrating, but on balance I’d rather have EVERYTHING than miss something. Each site is looked at with brief history, what is known of the archaeology, its current status, and even maps. It is therefore probably the very best source for anyone wanting to visit Roman Scotland.

My only niggle with the book is that on occasion one of the sites will not be quite in-depth enough for me. In fairness, I think that’s my problem and not Tibbs’s. I am looking for a great deal of info on certain sites about which there is little interesting to write, and no guide like this could realistically be expected to cover what I want. So the upshot is this: this is the best book on the subject. It’s beautiful, informative, and eminently usable. Go buy it.

So that’s part one of my review on Agricolan books. Hope it’s of interest and use. Back soon with part two.

Book News

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So the big book news, I think, is that the 12th installment of the Marius’ Mules series – Sands of Egypt – is released today…

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Winter, 48 BC. Caesar and his small force are trapped in the Egyptian city of Alexandria. Caught up in the dynastic struggles of the House of Ptolemy, the consul has sided with the clever and ruthless Queen Cleopatra. Her brother and fellow monarch Ptolemy XIII languishes in the palace, a hostage of Caesar’s, while a huge army under the command of the Egyptian general Achillas closes on the city to free him.

With both the future of this ancient land and the safety of Caesar and his men at stake, Fronto and his friends face the terrible task of holding an unfamiliar city under siege, in the desperate hope that reinforcements will reach them before the enemy break in.

But Egyptian reinforcements gather too, and with the interference of the youngest princess, Arsinoë, the future is far from written. Trapped, besieged and outnumbered, time is running out for the Romans, as shadows loom across the sands of Egypt.

The book is available from Amazon here in paperback and kindle format, here on Google Books, here on Kobo, here on iBooks, here on Nook, and here for any other digital need.

But because I’m a little bit prolific, and one book to throw your way seems too little, how’s about I draw you to this too, which is now out in kindle format, with paperback to follow:

Rubicon

You like Roman fiction? This is for you. A collection of short stories from some of the very best Roman writers, including both myself and my partner in crime Gordon Doherty. And for my part, you Praetorian fans, the story is one of our friend Rufinus, set between the last book (Lions of Rome) and the next (The Cleansing Fire)

You can buy it on Kindle at the moment right here and here’s the blurb:

“Greater than the sum of its parts… Rubicon has something for everyone: action, humour and historical insight.” Michael Arnold

Ten acclaimed authors. Ten gripping stories.

Immerse yourself in Ancient Rome through a collection of thrilling narratives, featuring soldiers, statesmen and spies. Read about some of your favourite characters from established series, or be introduced to new writers in the genre. The stories in Rubicon are, like Rome, diverse and intriguing – involving savage battles, espionage, political intrigue and the lives of ordinary – and extraordinary – Romans, such as Ovid, Marcus Agrippa and a young Julius Caesar.

This brand new collection, brought to you by the Historical Writers’ Association, also includes interviews with each author. Find out more about their writing processes and what attracts them to the Roman world. View Ancient Rome through fresh eyes. Rubicon is a feast of moreish tales and a must read for all fans of historical fiction.

Authors & Stories Featured in Rubicon:

  • Nick Brown – Maker of Gold
  • Gordon Doherty – Eagles in the Desert
  • Ruth Downie – Alter Ego
  • Richard Foreman – A Brief Affair
  • Alison Morton – Mystery of Victory
  • Anthony Riches – The Invitation
  • Antonia Senior – Exiles
  • Peter Tonkin – The Roman
  • L.J. Trafford – The Wedding
  • S.J. Turney – The Praetorian

Praise for Rubicon:

“Rubicon is a declaration of intent to intrigue, inspire and entertain. For me, this collection of stories extols the camaraderie that exists amongst the historical fiction bother and sisterhood. It perfectly encapsulates a shared passion for the subject of Rome in all its abundance and varied manifestations, taking the reader on a guided tour through the familiar and the strange. Leading us wide-eyed through a genre which has never lost its lustre. 
This is the fiction equivalent of a box of chocolates, a celebration of diverse Rome stories drawing upon all the riches of that most extraordinary and enduring of civilisations. It is a treasure trove of tales, showcasing a wealth of talent.
I have been entertained by authors whose work I know and love, and I’ve discovered new voices too, writers whom I look forward to getting to know better. Indeed, if the purpose of this collection is to delight, distract and to whet the reader’s appetite, leaving us eager for more, it is a resounding success.
Rubicon is a rare treat which I thoroughly enjoyed. I don’t know what the official collective noun for Roman short stories is, but in this case I think it’s a triumph.” Giles Kristian.

And I tell you what, folks… the news doesn’t end there! Here’s some lovely little titbits that I KNOW some of you have been waiting for:

  • I have signed the contract for the audio versions of Praetorian: Lions of Rome, as well as for book 5, as yet unwritten. Book 4 is already in production and will be out soon, so more on that in due course.
  • I’ve also signed a deal with the interactive audio guide company Bardeum, which produces immersive audio tales that guide you round historical sites. Next year you’ll be able to lose yourself in one of my tales as you walk the hill of the Palatine in Rome.
  • I’ve just completed the contract for the release of both Caligula and Commodus in the United States. Yes, the Damned Emperors will soon be available in the US too!
  • And currently, three of the four Praetorian books are available on kindle in the UK for the bargain price of 99p. That means you can own the whole set for less than £5.50. Now’s the time to get them (which you can do here)

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  • Next year you’ll be able to read my first non-fiction work, a book on the great Roman general Agricola, through Amberley publishing. The man who made Roman Britain is a figure of fascination for me. It’s also, believe it or not, the first time I’ve written a book about the Romans in my own country!

And that’s book news for today. Hope that’s enough for you, folks.

Simon.

New books!

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Grab your wallet/purse and make space on your bookshelves. Here are some recent and upcoming books you won’t want to miss:

Commodus poster

Well, I have to start with my own, don’t I. Commodus is released next Thursday (13th June). The second book of the Damned Emperors series is published by Orion and will be released in hardback, audio and ebook format that day.

“Rome is enjoying a period of stability and prosperity. The Empire’s borders are growing, and there are two sons in the imperial succession for the first time in Rome’s history. But all is not as it appears. Cracks are beginning to show. Two decades of war have taken their toll, and there are whispers of a sickness in the East. The Empire stands on the brink of true disaster, an age of gold giving way to one of iron and rust, a time of reason and strength sliding into hunger and pain.

The decline may yet be halted, though. One man tries to hold the fracturing empire together. To Rome, he is their emperor, their Hercules, their Commodus.

But Commodus is breaking up himself, and when the darkness grips, only one woman can hold him together. To Rome she was nothing. The plaything of the emperor. To Commodus, she was everything. She was Marcia.”

Pre-order Commodus here

SOI

And my good friend and partner in crime Gordon Doherty has the first book of his new epic series Empires of Bronze out on that very same day. Son of Ishtar rolls out in paperback and ebook format on Thursday 13th of June. I’ve read it, too. It’s ace.

“Four sons. One throne. A world on the precipice.

1315 BC: Tensions soar between the great powers of the Late Bronze Age. The Hittites stand toe-to-toe with Egypt, Assyria and Mycenaean Ahhiyawa, and war seems inevitable. More, the fierce Kaskan tribes – age-old enemies of the Hittites – amass at the northern borders.

When Prince Hattu is born, it should be a rare joyous moment for all the Hittite people. But when the Goddess Ishtar comes to King Mursili in a dream, she warns that the boy is no blessing, telling of a dark future where he will stain Mursili’s throne with blood and bring destruction upon the world.

Thus, Hattu endures a solitary boyhood in the shadow of his siblings, spurned by his father and shunned by the Hittite people. But when the Kaskans invade, Hattu is drawn into the fray. It is a savage journey in which he strives to show his worth and valour. Yet with his every step, the shadow of Ishtar’s prophecy darkens…”

Pre-order Son of Ishtar here

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Another friend and comrade, Alex Gough, has just seen his first book in a new series released too. Book 1 of the Imperial Assassin series, The Emperor’s Sword, was released by Canelo yesterday, the 6th June in ebook format thus far. Once again, I had the chance to read this before release and lovers of Roman military fiction will really enjoy this.

“A desolate wasteland. A mission gone wrong. An impossible goal. A gripping new series of Ancient Rome

Roman scout Silus is deep behind enemy lines in Caledonia. As he spies on a raiding party, he is abruptly discovered by an enemy chief and his son.

Mounting a one man ambush, everything quickly goes wrong. Silus must run for his life, the head of the enemy leader in his hands. Little does he know the price he will pay…

As Silus is inducted into the Arcani, an elite faction of assassins and spies, he must return to Caledonia, back into the wilderness, and risk everything in the service of his Caesar. The odds don’t look good.

Failure is not an option.”

Buy the book here

PRIMA FACIE EBOOK COVER FINAL 1 5 2019

I would say that if you’re a historical fiction reader and you haven’t come across Ruth Downie’s Ruso books, then you must have been hiding in a cave for the past decade. While we wait for book 9 in the series, Ruth has treated us to a 150 page novella, which will be release in paperback and ebook format on July 9th.

“It’s AD 123 and the sun is shining on southern Gaul. Ex-military medic Ruso and his British wife Tilla are back after a long absence – but it’s not the reunion anyone had hoped for.

Ruso’s brother has left him in charge of a farm he has no idea how to manage, a chronic debt problem and a gaggle of accident-prone small children. Meanwhile his sister Flora has run away to rescue her boyfriend, who’s accused of murdering a wealthy guest at a party.

Can Ruso and Tilla save the boyfriend from the murder charge – or should they be saving Flora from the boyfriend? Will any of the guests tell the truth about the fatal party before it’s too late? And meanwhile, how long can Ruso continue to lie about what’s inside the bath house?”

Pre-order the book here

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And last but not least, fans of Robert Low will probably have already read his fab recent Roman epic ‘Beasts beyond the wall’. Well the second book in the series, The Red Serpent, is out on July 5th.

“At the edge of the empire, the hunters become the hunted…
They’re back – Drust, Kag, Ugo, Sib and some new faces – as dirt-ridden and downbeat as ever.

Drawn to the edge of the Roman world and the blasted deserts of the Syrian frontier, they are presented with a mysterious riddle from their old companions, Dog and Manius. In the scorching heat, plots and rumours breed like flies on a corpse.

To survive, Drust and the others must face all challengers along with Mother Nature’s rage. Sometimes they’ll stand and fight; sometimes they’ll run as fast as they can and pray to the Gods. For it is a mad and violent world, and they must be equal to it…”

Pre-order it here