Authors: Douglas Jackson
Tags: #Fiction, #Historical
About the Book
Emperor Nero’s grip on power is weakening. In every shadow he sees an enemy and, like a cornered animal, he lashes out at every perceived threat. His paranoia settles on the figure of Gnaeus Domitius Corbulo, Rome’s greatest General, who leads the imperial legions in the East.
So popular is Corbulo with his men that he effectively presides over an Empire within an Empire. Is Corbulo preparing to march against Rome and take the purple?
Gaius Valerius Verrens, Hero of Rome, is ordered to Antioch with the power of life and death over Corbulo, a soldier he worships. But he finds word of his mission has preceded him and every man’s hand is turned against him. However, Corbulo’s eyes are not on Rome, but on a new threat to the Empire’s border. The Parthian King of Kings, Vologases, is marching to war and with such an army that if not stopped he might overwhelm the entire Roman East.
Valerius marches at Corbulo’s side. Outnumbered, they make a stand in the barren wastes beyond the Tigris, meeting Vologases in an epic contest of military might and ingenuity that will decide the fate of the Empire. And while he fights for the Empire, and for his own survival on the battlefield, Valerius must decide whether to complete his mission, or risk incurring his Emperor’s dangerous wrath.
AVENGER OF ROME
Having restored their discipline, Domitius Corbulo held back the Parthians with two legions and a very few auxilia
Sextus Julius Frontinus,
A MAN’S SWORD
could be his friend or his enemy. Every sword was subtly different. A rich man’s sword would be forged of the finest carbon-rich iron and have the edge of a surgeon’s scalpel. An auxiliary’s sword would be one of a thousand, crude and poorly finished in some provincial armoury. A poor sword might bend or break. The best swords were like the men who wielded them: tested to their very limits in the balefire of battle. The sword Gaius Valerius Verrens held was a warrior’s sword.
Valerius studied the blade in the light from the oil lamp. A simple legionary
, twenty-two inches long, honed to the sharpness only a veteran soldier could give it and with a leather hand-grip moulded by use to the grasp of his fingers. The
was a killing weapon, no more and no less. In the right hands it would harvest flesh as efficiently as a scythe would harvest wheat. Only the decorated pommel, a gleaming silver bulb embossed with a snake-headed Medusa, differentiated this sword from any other.
His fingers flexed on the grip and his mind sought to gauge the approaching danger. He had felt the vibrations first: the almost
shiver resonating through the heat-seasoned earth of the road to the family villa at Fidenae. Now the sensation was swiftly transformed into the muted thunder of galloping horses. There was no fear. If anything, he felt an odd serenity. He had always known they would come. It was only a matter of when. A rustling sound alerted him and he turned, ready to meet the new threat, only to find himself staring into the wide, liquid eyes of his sister Olivia. Of course, she would have heard them. In her own way, she had as much to fear as he. He smiled gently and shook his head. They had gone through this often. Nothing to be done. They would each meet what came in their own fashion. The pale, almost alabaster features turned resolute. She nodded farewell before retreating to make her peace with her God, and find comfort in the dagger that would save her the terrible end the Emperor had dictated for those who worshipped the man Christus. Valerius had debated long and hard whether to follow that route. He knew exactly where to place the point, the angle of penetration and the force required. He raised the sword in front of him, turning the blade into a bar of flickering gold. So beautiful. How many men had felt the sting of its cold metal? To use it on his own flesh would have a certain terrible symmetry. But would that make it his friend or his enemy? A smile flitted briefly across his scarred face as he made his decision.
Others might take that road, but Gaius Valerius Verrens, Hero of Rome and last survivor of the Temple of Claudius, would not.
He emerged into the grey softness of the pre-dawn. Nero would have sent his best. He would face them in the open, where his speed and his skill would give him the greatest advantage. The result was in no doubt, nor did he intend it to be, but he would give them a fight to remember. A soldier’s end, because, whatever they said, he would always be a soldier.
The shrill sound of a horse’s whinny cut the still air and the rhythmic thud of individual hoofbeats reverberated like the snap of a
volley. Twenty at least, but then they wouldn’t have sent fewer. Soon. Valerius readied himself as the cavalry galloped into the broad courtyard with their red cloaks streaming behind them. His sudden appearance from the shadows gave him the element of surprise and
was a moment of confusion before the decurion in charge sawed his mount to a halt and gaped in disbelief at the tall, commanding figure with the sword in his left hand. It lasted all of a second before he heard the nerve-tingling hiss of twenty blades being unsheathed.
He waited unflinchingly for the command that would begin it and end it. But before it could be given a hooded figure emerged from the centre of the mass and drew back the cowl that hid his face.
‘I see you still know how to wield a sword.’ A tall man, spare and neat, with his prematurely white hair cropped short. The voice was soft, almost gentle, but it was belied by basilisk eyes that hinted at just how dangerous he could be. ‘It is a fine weapon.’
Valerius attempted to hide his astonishment at his visitor’s identity. ‘As fine as the day you placed it in my hand.’
‘But somewhat rash to bare it in the presence of a consul of Rome.’
He replaced the sword in its ornate sheath and bowed to Gaius Suetonius Paulinus, formerly Britain’s governor and destroyer of Boudicca’s rebel armies, later political outcast and now, against all reason, restored to high office by his Emperor. ‘Welcome to my home.’
Paulinus looked around appreciatively at his rustic surroundings. ‘A fine estate, but then you have had ample time to concentrate upon it this last year.’
Valerius smiled politely at the unsubtle hint. Of course Paulinus would be fully versed on his self-imposed exile since returning from Africa, where he had served as
to the proconsul, Aulus Vitellius. But his heart pounded as he sought a reason for the consul’s unlikely appearance. It was five years since they had last met and the then governor of Britain had recommended him for the honour that had changed his life. This was no social visit. Belatedly, he remembered his manners.
‘I know it is early, but perhaps you would like to sample our wine?’ he offered. ‘I will have my slaves see to your horses and feed your men.’
Paulinus shook his head. ‘A little water and whatever you normally break your fast with. We have matters to discuss, Gaius Valerius Verrens. Private matters.’
rang a warning bell in Valerius’s head. As
led Paulinus inside he felt as if a dozen arrows were aimed at the centre of his spine. He saw a flash of Olivia’s pale features in the doorway of the
and steered Paulinus past to the library, which was the most secluded room in the house. The consul pretended to admire a marble bust of Valerius’s grandfather while they waited for the slaves to deliver food and leave. Valerius unbelted his sword and placed it on one of the two couches in the room. The other man gave a smile that asked permission to inspect the weapon and took Valerius’s look of indecision for acceptance. He slid the sword from the ornate scabbard and weighed it in his hand, his eyes narrowing as he studied the blade. Just for a moment Valerius thought he had misjudged the situation and Paulinus had been sent to kill him, but eventually the consul nodded in satisfaction and slid it home.
‘A fine sword, indeed. A sword worthy of the man who held the Temple of Claudius to the last man.’ He reached beneath his cloak and withdrew a slim object which he handed to Valerius. ‘You served your Emperor well at Colonia. Now you have your opportunity to serve him again.’
What Valerius held in his hand was a leather tube, dark brown and weathered with age, about twelve inches in length and with the scuffs and scrapes of long usage clear beneath the layers of constant waxing. The imperial seal, an image of the Emperor Nero as the Sun King, was embossed in wax across the join.
He felt Paulinus’s eyes on him as he wedged the tube in his right hand and worked at the stiff flap with his left. The contents were a single sheet of parchment.
‘Read it, please. Aloud.’
Valerius was surprised at the power in his voice as he deciphered the neat clerkish hand. ‘
Gaius Valerius Verrens, Hero of Rome, is to assume the rank of senior military tribune and proceed to the headquarters of General Gnaeus Domitius Corbulo, there to take up the position of second in command, and to undertake whatever duties the general sees fit in the service of the Empire
.’ There was more. Travel details and a list of personal equipment. A warrant for passage on a ship leaving from Ostia in one week.
His head spun.
Gaius Valerius Verrens, Hero of Rome, is to assume the rank of senior military tribune
. And with Corbulo, Rome’s greatest general. The man who had outfought and outthought the tribes of Germania and whose feats of engineering had astounded the Empire. So why did he feel as if he held a squirming viper? He looked up and sensed the almost mocking glint in the granite-chip eyes that surveyed him from beneath Paulinus’s heavy brows.
‘The appointment does not please you?’
Valerius stared at the older man. ‘It pleases me well enough, but the method of delivery surprises me. I ask myself why a serving consul of Rome should rise before dawn and ride six miles to convey a routine message from the Palatium that could have been delivered at any time by imperial courier.’
‘Call it an old comrade’s whim,’ Paulinus suggested, the pale lips curving upwards in a parody of a smile.
‘Call it a trap. If you are going to play games with me, consul, perhaps it would be better if you left now.’ Valerius kept his tone unforgiving and he allowed his eyes to stray to the sword. ‘I am no longer the boy you knew.’