Ellis L. (Skip) Knox, Goblins at the Gates
Goblins at the Gates
Length: 538 pages
A Hill in Dacia
Serapion led his horse away from the ridge top into a little grove of scrub oak where, he hoped, she would not catch the scent of the creatures.
“Easy, my great heart,” he said as he slipped to the ground. He stroked her neck and held his head close to hers, feeling her muscles quiver with nervousness. She was dangerously close to bolting.
He felt the same way. Even the brief glimpse of what was in the valley had chilled him. As a scout for the XII Legion, his job was to observe and report, not to panic like some palace serving girl.
He tied the mare to a sturdy branch, then crept back to the edge of the hill and laid down. Whatever was down there, he did not want to be seen.
At the bottom of the valley flowed a wide, shallow river, its waters white with minerals and sediment washing down from distant mountains. Stunted trees ran along both sides, barely visible now, for the valley was covered by a flood of dark creatures that moved slowly downstream.
Everywhere in the surging mass, individual shapes leaped suddenly into the air, then fell back again. The bounding shapes were like a herd of antelope on the run. Or, he thought with a shudder, locusts.
They were far too big for locusts, but their hopping motion evoked those terrible insects. A childhood memory swept over him, of his village covered by clouds of whirring wings. His fists clenched and he blinked hard to push the memory away. These were not locusts.
Whatever they were, they were unlike anything he’d ever seen or heard of. What they were, though, was not important. The only question for a Roman scout was their number.
He scanned the scene below, trying to come up with an estimate. Thousands, that much was sure, but Captain Ennius would have him skinned if he returned with so vague a report. His keen eyes carved the valley into sections. Ten thousand, at least. Probably more. It was hard to tell because bands of them swirled away, scattering like black snowdrifts up the sides of the valley. Cold dread crawled into his belly as he realized those bands could also be up in the hills behind him. A whinny from his mare sent him scuttling backward.
“Forty thousand,” he muttered as he untied the horse, “and the Captain will have to be content with that.”
Forty thousand, he thought as he mounted, but forty thousand what?
They had been too far away for him to see their features, but that hardly mattered. The barbarians in this land had no end of descriptions for them. A single glance at the valley was enough to know that the stories of the past winter were not mere rumors. There was no need to see if they truly had claws that could gut a man at a blow. The legends were real. He could now confirm that; the rest was details.
He reined his horse, turning her back down the slope. Stillness covered the brown earth and filled the gray sky. He leaned forward.
“Go,” he whispered.
The mare snorted as she sprang into a full gallop. Her hoof beats pounded, and he smelled fear on her. He let her run for a while. She was scared and he was scared, and a good gallop might steady the nerves of both.
After a few minutes of this, he slowed her to a trot, a pace he knew she could maintain for hours. She was still flighty, and shied from time to time, as if scenting something on the wind, except there was no wind, only the cold, damp, motionless air. He rode south along the western slope, keeping the hills between himself and the valley. When he judged he’d put in enough distance, he turned west.
The mare whinnied, dancing sideways. Serapion cast a quick look back. His breath caught. Dark, loping creatures were after him, a dozen or so, moving quickly. He didn’t have to urge his horse; she broke at once into a gallop.
The creatures pursued like wolves, with a pack of three gaining on the left and another pack on the right, while the others ran directly behind. They matched his mare’s speed and he wondered if she could outrun them.
His habits as scout stayed with him as he noted everything he could about them, even as his horse thundered beneath him and the air thundered in his ears.
The beasts were the color of mud, mottled with dark greens and grays and deep crimson. They were smaller than a man, by a head or more, and were oddly shaped. Their legs were powerful, with thighs and hips almost like those of a bear. Their arms were long, and from time to time were used as if they were front legs. Their heads had a snout rather than a nose. Their eyes seemed to be small; it was hard to tell, at a full gallop. When one of them leaped, it covered twenty or thirty feet at a time. With every backward glance, they were suddenly closer.
He leaned into his horse and let her run. He had no doubt the creatures intended to kill him; they were running him the way a wolf pack runs a stag. Only the brown mare and her great heart could save him now.
He slipped into the horse’s rhythm, letting her muscles take the lead, fitting his own motion to hers. The ground blurred beneath him. He did not try to guide her, did not even look where they were going, trusting the mare’s instincts.
The creatures uttered no cry, and that silent hunting was as unnerving as their speed. At least wolves howled. You could get a sense of where they were. These things were like ghosts. He cursed the barbarians and their grim tales. He cursed the gray, unmoving sky above and the hard brown earth beneath. He kept imagining the slash of claws just above his shoulders. Finally, he could bear it no longer. He looked left quickly.
He rode a little further, then dared a glance to the right.
He looked back, over his right shoulder, and saw them, but they were some distance back and fading.
He knew his horse’s strengths. She had run hard, but she had some distance left in her yet. He let her run at full gallop, agreeing with her that they should put all the ground they could between themselves and those bounding monstrosities.
He looked back again.
The creatures were far behind now-they were fast, but only for short distances. Something to remember for his report.
He eased the mare’s pace, backing off slowly but steadily. He wanted to ride far today, and she would need her reserves. Two carrots tonight. And half the remaining oats.
After several minutes, he had slowed her to a traveling trot. Sweat slicked her coat; he would need to cool her down carefully. He checked the position of the sun, as best he could through the low clouds. Three hours of daylight, at least.
He crested another rise. He couldn’t see much through the pine trees covering the hilltop, but behind him the ground was clear and there was no sign of pursuit.
On the westward slope they slowed even further, their progress impeded by underbrush and rowan trees. He chafed; the horse was having to work too hard to press through. He might have to rest her. The thought made his skin crawl.
Toward the bottom the underbrush became still heavier and it took much longer than he had hoped to work his way through. Willow trees lined the bank of a small stream at the bottom, and he let the mare have a brief drink.
She snorted and balked as they moved across the stream, then they plunged into heavy underbrush that grew higher than his head. Thorns reached out, catching at his clothing.
They zig-zagged back and forth through the scrub, not able to see any distance, hearing only the sound of their own passage. Every rustle or sigh became the sound of an approaching enemy. He knew this feeling of closing dread-he had made his way through enemy lines before, fearing every noise and movement not of his own making. This was worse, though, and the mare seemed to agree. Twice she refused to go along a clear path, dancing aside when he tried to urge her forward. He chose to let her have her way. Dark shapes kept appearing at the edge of his vision.
The heavy growth gave way abruptly, and they were again climbing. He looked behind, but there was no sign of the creatures. He pulled up and sat for a moment, looking carefully in every direction, listening in every direction, even sniffing the air. Still no sign. The muscles in his shoulders, fist-tight, gradually eased.
“Hup, my heart,” he said, and the mare resumed at a walk. Three nights in the open, if we push hard, he thought, and then we’ll be back. He wondered if Captain Ennius would believe him, or if anyone would. The Captain might not even pass the report on to the Old Man.
He rode slowly, alert, his nerves still jagged as a shattered pot. He was about halfway up the big hill when his horse whinnied loudly and pulled up short. Coming over the crest to the north was a ragged line of creatures, many more than before. Hundreds more.
For one instant horse and rider froze in place, staring at the dark line. Then one of the creatures jumped, and Serapion turned back down the hill.
It was unjust, he thought. His brown mare could outrun them, she had proved that. But not at such close quarters. Not taken unaware. He leaned down, close to her neck, almost weeping for what was about to happen. “Run, great heart,” he whispered softly, knowing she needed no encouragement, knowing it would do no good. He said the words as a kind of apology. A farewell.
The monsters were already on both sides, but Serapion looked only ahead. The horse ran and the ground flew below. The only sound he heard was a great thundering of hooves and breath. Her body strained, tearing at the hard earth. He leaned far forward, wanting to feel her run, to feel heart and flank, for that to be the last thing he felt.
No one saw him die on the mile-long hills of Dacia. No one saw the dark shapes leap, nor heard the screams of horse and man. And no one knew the monsters ate the horse first.
The New General
A cold rain had driven in from the southeast, making the dark afternoon even darker. Two guards stood at the western gate of a Roman military camp, cloaks pulled tight against the wind. Only their eyes showed between folds of brown cloth.
“Who do you figure that is?” said one.
“Don’t know,” said the other as he peered through the gloom. A man was riding on a donkey that plodded down the track that passed for a road in this part of Dacia. “He don’t look barbarian. Nor local neither.”
“No,” agreed the first, “he don’t.”
The man drew closer and began to wave.
“What’s he want?”
“Couldn’t say. Might be trouble, though. Swords ready.” The one pulled his sword from its scabbard, but the other merely rested his hand on the hilt.
The figure was closer now. He was urging his donkey with threats and imprecations, but the animal ignored him and kept its own pace.
They could hear him now, in fragments broken by the wind. “Is this the ... Legion?”
One guard looked at the other and shrugged. Is this the Legion? No, this is the imperial baths and we’re a couple of senators. They let the man get closer.
“Is ... this ... the ... Legio ... XII ...,” the man was shouting into the wind, “... Heraclea?”
One of the guards said, “It is,” and again they exchanged looks. They were a hundred miles north of the Great River. What the hell other Legion would they be?
The donkey finally brought the man within conversation distance. He was enveloped in layers of cloaks, not one of them oiled. He was soaked through and shivering. The soldiers figured he deserved it.
“P-please announce the arrival of L-L-Lucius J-Julianus Metellus, the new c-c-commander.”
A third time the guards exchanged glances.
“That be you, then, fellow?” said one. The other one snickered.
“No, I am Avitus. I’ll b-bring him.”
“You do that.”
The man turned his donkey around, which set off again at a dispirited walk, with the man urging and cursing the beast. After watching him for a few minutes as he disappeared into the gusting rain, the first guard waved a hand.
“Eh,” he said. “Better tell the Old Man. Who knows, maybe it really is the new General.”
Avitus was trying to wake up his master. The morning light coming through the commander’s tent had not done the job, nor had the noise from the soldiers outside. He had tried whispering in Julian’s ear and gently shaking the sleeping form, but he had not really expected either to work. Normally the next step would be shouting, followed by banging on metal, but these were not normal circumstances, and his master had to get up. He had a Legion to command.
“Open your eyes,” Avitus said in a low voice. “I know you’re awake; I’ve seen this trick too many times, but now isn’t the time for tricks.” He shook the blanketed man again, harder.
Avitus knelt down and put his mouth close to Julian’s ear.
“Listen to me, you miserable whelp. You made me leave Constantinople and your family’s palace. You dragged me through foul weather and desolation to come here. You made me ride a donkey. And now, right outside this tent, is a ferocious-looking officer demanding to see you. I am not going back out there alone, so get up or I’m going to haul you up and shove you outside half clothed.” He frowned.
“You are at least half-clothed, right?”
Julian stirred at last. He turned over and, without opening his eyes, said, “Go away, Avi. Let the man stand there all day. He’s probably good at it.”
“Oh no, absolutely not. I am not the general, you are. That means you have to get up and do ... general-y things.”
“Generally, I don’t do much, this time of day.”
Exasperated, Avitus stood up and announced in a loud voice, “Let me help you with that, master. Then you’ll be fully dressed.”
Julian’s eyes opened. They were a deep blue and more than a little bloodshot. He blinked. There were disadvantages to keeping oneself warm in bad weather by means of heavy drinking.
Clearing his throat he said in an equally loud voice, “Thank you, slave, I can manage myself. Please advise the officer I’ll be out directly.”
“That was a low trick,” Avitus snarled, “now I’ll have to go back out there.”
“Not low, Avi,” he said, “merely Roman.” He threw back the blanket and looked down at himself. His clothes were rumpled and stained from travel.
“Huh. Not half, but fully-dressed. Very handy.”
He hunted up a cloak and wrapped it around himself against the cold. He looked around the tent. He had been too tired and too wet the night before to pay any attention to his surroundings; now that he had a look, he was not impressed: a cot, a chest (which was his own), a wooden table with nothing on it. From the evidence, the general of the XII Heraclea commanded men but did not command luxury. He ran one hand through his pale-colored hair, which merely re-arranged it into a new mess. This gesture having exhausted his repertoire of stalling, he turned to his slave and spoke in a loud, clear voice.
“Show the man in, Avi. Don’t keep the good soldier waiting.”
The general’s tent was in two chambers-a small area, where Julian had slept, and the main tent. Avitus now went from the one into the other, with his master following. The main tent was equally austere: the table was larger, had two benches, and there was another chest, but nothing more.
Avitus opened the tent and motioned, then stepped aside.
A soldier entered, trying not to look irritated and not doing a very good job of it. He looked exactly how Julian expected him to look: grizzled, a weather-worn face, strong arms, a barrel for a chest, aging but not yet gone soft. Certainly a veteran of several campaigns, he was standard-issue army.
Father, he thought, would have loved him on sight.
“Marcus Salvius, First Tribune, reporting, sir.”
The man stood stiff as an oak, his uniform carefully neat. Julian had a vague memory of having met the fellow last night, but he’d been tired and it had been raining. Besides, he told himself, what did it really matter?
“Thank you, Marcus Salvius, First Tribune. Do you know where a fellow might get breakfast around here?
“Yes, food taken soon after rising in the morning? Surely you’ve heard of it.”
The man did not exactly frown, but the not-frowning showed all over his face and his left eye twitched.
“Yes, sir. At once, sir.” He turned without bending, stepped out through the tent flaps and spoke to someone outside. Julian managed to hear “yes now, damn you,” clearly enough.
Marcus Salvius returned. “Food is on its way,” he said.
Something in that sentence was a reproach, but Julian couldn’t spot where.
“Fine,” he said, “why don’t you sit down and we can share it.”
The Tribune looked as delighted by this invitation as if he’d been asked to eat a rat. Julian didn’t mind too much. The man was responsible for waking him up, and therefore surely deserved some sort of punishment.
Arrangements for dining were as austere as the tent: plain plates and wooden spoons. He would not have been surprised to find drinking horns. He sighed without sighing. “Get on with it,” he told himself. “You knew this wasn’t going to be fun.”
Once seated, Julian smiled sweetly. Then he said, “You’ve been camped here for how long?”
“Several weeks,” the Tribune said.
Julian heard the disapproval in those words plainly enough. He wondered if news of his escapade in the City could have reached the Legion already.
“We’ve been keeping an eye on the Thervingi,” Marcus said after a pause.
“And how are you doing with your eye-keeping?”
“Their town, Oppidum, is nearby, just to the east. King Fritigern is there. He has been expecting you.”
An answer that was not an answer, and there was that tone again. Yes, he could have arrived sooner, but he had dragged his feet. He kept hoping there might be some reversal of fortune that would get him out of this ridiculous pretense of military command, and let him return to the City.
Returning was the key. He had all but fled, after the incident at Plotinus’ house. That fat fool was an important man, but he could not be so strong as to contend with Julian’s mother, surely. The Lady Helena still had the Emperor’s favor. But days had slid into weeks and, if anything, the clamor in the City had grown stronger. At Duros, his mother had written him: get across the Great River at once. Plotinus had men riding to arrest him. Once over the river, he was outside the limes, the borders of the Empire, and beyond Plotinus’ reach.
Even after getting safely away, though, Julian had not hurried. He had spent his life avoiding the Army; he was not eager to command a Legion. Yes, he was late in taking up his post, but it wasn’t the place of the First Tribune to venture an opinion on that subject, however obliquely.
He looked hard at Marcus, but those dark eyes revealed nothing about the man’s thoughts. Julian decided to let it pass. It was just possible he was being over-sensitive.
“Ah, here is the food,” he said, welcoming the interruption. He made a show of letting Avitus, rather than the soldier who had brought the food, do the serving.
Julian was sure the Tribune had his own concerns and his own agenda; he knew enough from listening to his father to know senior officers in a Legion tended to get a sense of ownership the longer they stayed in one place. Even now the man was probably trying to assess how much of an annoyance this young aristocrat was going to be.
Julian decided to ignore Tribunes and their petty concerns, and pay attention to the food instead, which he was hungry enough to enjoy despite its shortcomings. He made a fuss over the olives and declared the bread excellent, which it wasn’t. He drank sparingly of the wine, which was surprisingly good.
A couple of times during the largely silent meal a soldier peeked into the tent. Marcus waved him away both times. After the second time, Julian had to ask.
“I have the feeling I’m missing something. Is there something I’m missing, First Tribune?”
Marcus managed to get some bread in his mouth before Julian could finish his question. He now chewed slowly. Julian waited. Marcus’ face showed that it had weathered many storms over the years, and could weather Julian’s glare.
“No sir.” More chewing. “You cannot miss it.”
“And why is that?”
“Because it can’t start without you, sir.”
Julian took a new and firmer grip on his temper.
“What won’t start without me, First?”
“The review of the troops sir. That must wait on the General.”
Pieces he hadn’t even known were pieces now fell into place.
“Marcus Salvius,” he said, “are the troops assembled for review?”
“For how long?”
“Since sunrise, sir. That’s protocol.”
“The men have been standing out in this miserable cold since sunrise?”
“Soldier,” Julian said, deliberately not using his title, “don’t do this again. If there’s something I should know, tell me. Don’t wait around taking bets on how long it will take me to notice. Very amusing for you, no doubt, but the men don’t deserve it.”
That got a reaction. The Tribune flushed and his eyes narrowed. If this had been a tavern back in the City, there might have been a table kicked over and a fight begun. Here, all that happened was a terse, “Yes, sir.”
Julian stood up.
“I tell you what, First. You send a messenger to King Fritigern. Announce my arrival and tell him that I wish to meet with him at once. Today. Choose one of your speedier messengers, yes? You do that, and then you and I can take a stroll around the camp. Does this sound agreeable, Marcus Salvius?”
The Tribune had stood when his commander did. He now said, “yes sir, at once sir,” and exited the tent with a surprising combination of dignity and speed.
“That went well,” Avitus ventured. A sliver of a smile creased his dark face.
Julian scowled at him. “Fetch me my cloak. The Army one. It appears it is time for me to go play General. And you come with me, little bird; I’m among the enemy here.”
The two men emerged from the tent into a dismal light. The storm of the last three days had passed, leaving in its wake a gray sky and frozen ground covered with a thin blanket of snow. The air clung to everything, heavy and cold as granite; it felt damp, it even smelled damp. There had not been one day of blue sky since he had left Duros and the Great River; he felt as if the dregs of winter were following him up the Dacian marsh lands. The only color besides gray or white was the red of Roman cloaks on the backs of the men, standing in ranks outside their tents, waiting. A silence hung over the camp, the kind that comes only when two thousand men are all quiet at once. As they breathed, puffs of steam made white clouds about their heads.
He had seen his father do this more than once, but in truth he had little idea what “review the Legion” meant. Legions were not allowed inside Constantinople, and Julian rarely ventured outside the City, except to retreat to a country estate in summer. From the fragments of youthful memory, review seemed to consist of nothing more than walking and glaring, and occasionally speaking to one of the men about some shortcoming or other. But the last time he had seen this he was thirteen years old. His memory was hazy.
“Lead the way, Marcus Salvius. You know your way around better than I do, today.” He added that last word without quite knowing why. He did not plan on being here long enough to learn his way around, today or tomorrow.
The Tribune began walking along the via principalis, the main thoroughfare of every Roman military camp, which was lined with leather tents on either side. In front of the tents the soldiers stood at attention in their cohorts. Arms and armor, tents, campfires, men in rows, all spread out along the four streets that made up a Roman camp. Julian followed glumly, pulling his cloak tight around him.
“First Cohort,” said Marcus Salvius, “full strength.”
The men stood at attention, their red cloaks hanging heavy in the chill air. What was full strength? The First Cohort was always double strength, and limitanei Legions were larger than field Legions. Six hundred, then, perhaps more. The men were wearing battle dress, but he couldn’t decide if it was formal or not; if it was formal it was awfully worn down.
He made a show of looking, without really knowing what he was looking at or for. He had not expected to attend to any sort of Army business at all. He came here only to negotiate a treaty, and this military command nonsense was merely an unpleasant prerequisite. Now that he was here, though, his natural egotism came to the fore. Whether he was at an inn, on the docks, at the Hippodrome, or attending some First Hill dinner party, he always cared to make an impression. His friends would have laughed to see Lucius Julianus Metellus trying to show a good face to a Roman Legion. He smiled at himself as the Tribune led him to the next cohort.
The Second Tribune was a hawk-faced older man with close-cropped hair and a graying beard. Barrel-chested, he could have been Marcus’ older brother. He reported everything in order, same as the First. Julian complimented the officer and moved on. When you don’t know what you’re doing, his mother would say, do it with authority. His father would have said ... then again, his father would not have said. Things had simply happened when the great General bestrode the earth.
The soldiers themselves were in good order, but Julian noticed their equipment was not of quality issue. He was not surprised. The best stuff went to the field armies anyway. The XII was making do with second-class supplies. There was also no siege equipment, as if no one expected this Legion to engage in any serious military operation. Well, who would the XII besiege out here in the wilds? He tried hard to make it feel unimportant, but he couldn’t help being irritated by the poor shape of the soldiers’ equipment.
“It looks to me, Marcus Salvius, that Rome never expected the XII to leave Noviodunum.”
“Yet Rome keeps sending us out, sir.”
“Rome sent me out as well, Marcus, so she clearly has not lost her sense of humor.”
“Never mind. Is it necessary to visit each and every Cohort?”
“That is protocol,” Marcus said, clipping each word. “The command staff as well.”
Julian sighed. He glanced back at Avitus, who was staying three steps behind. He rolled his eyes, and the slave grinned back.
After two more Cohorts, they were now next to the escarpment that surrounded the camp, and beyond it was something that caught his eye.
“Say, what’s up here?”
Without waiting for a reply, Julian went bounding up. At the top were neatly spaced rows of sharpened stakes, angled outward toward any potential enemy. At the foot was the trench that had provided the material for the wall. Julian, though, was interested in none of this. Instead, he was looking at an isolated hill in the distance.
The Carpati Mountains stood to the west; dark, and fir-clad, with the white of snow showing on all the peaks. The mountains dropped away rather suddenly to the Siret river, but one treeless hill stood alone, rising a few hundred feet above the valley floor. While the Carpati were clothed in white, this hill was clothed in black, and was crowned with wooden wall, like a brown circlet.
“Is that their town?”
“Yes, General,” said Marcus Salvius, who was still scrambling up the slope. “They call it Oppidum,” he added.
“Hill fort-what a name for a town. Gods. It looks like it’s in mourning.”
Marcus gained the top. “That’d be the Thervingi, sir. They live in tents, mainly, and every one of them made of black goat hair.”
“They pile together a bunch of tents and call it a city?”
“Not exactly, sir. They’re herders, so they move about. That’s why they live in tents. But see the wall at the crown? The town’s inside. That’s permanent, with buildings and the like, or so I’ve been told. General Neander, your predecessor, never brought any of us with him on negotiations.” He said this with a sidelong glance at Julian.
“There must be hundreds of tents,” Julian said.
“Likely. Last year there were more, maybe twice or three times as many. They spilled out across the flats. It’s one reason why we’re camped so far away, sir. We expected there to be more. Like last year and the year before.”
“Well,” Julian said, “there’s no telling with barbarians, eh First?”
“As the General says.”
Julian turned and went back down the embankment and they went on with the review. He hurried as much as he could without appearing to hurry. At each Cohort he was introduced to its Tribune, whose name he promptly forgot. When they arrived at the Fourth Cohort, he surveyed it with dismay.
“Gods, First, couldn’t you find any greener?”
The Tribune looked at him steadily. “We have what Rome has given us,” he said, then added, a little defensively, “They’re good lads.”
The Fourth Cohort was mostly raw recruits, tirones; the few veterans were probably discipline problems. Most legions had a cohort that served as a catch-all.
“I’m sure they are, First.”
Marcus made no reply to this. Julian could see the man was unhappy with him. No doubt he wasn’t following proper procedure. Well, First, Julian thought, you’d better get used to it. I don’t have time for your procedures and rituals, and I have even less time for men who are preoccupied by them.
Inspired by such thinking, Julian returned to the center of the camp, where the general’s tent stood along with supply tents and the legion’s standard. The standard for this legion had the usual imperial eagle at the top, under which was a banner with the image of Hercules strangling a snake. A variety of discs hung from the crossarm of the standard.
“The XII’s banner has quite a string of victories,” Julian said, trying to make small talk as they approached.
“It is an old legion,” the Tribune said, “it goes back to Julius Caesar.”
“I knew I’d heard of it. I think my father told me of it once. He was a general himself, my father, and never tired of telling Army stories.”
“I served two years with your father, sir. He was a great man.”
Julian glanced over at Marcus. That explained a few things. Out of habit whenever his father’s reputation was mentioned, Julian responded with sarcasm.
“I have the advantage of you, then,” he said, “I served sixteen years with him.”
The Tribune blinked but showed no emotion. “You are therefore more fortunate than I,” he said.
Julian stopped, so Marcus stopped with him. A little breeze stirred the dry snow that had settled on the leather tents.
“It is easier to be a great man’s soldier, Marcus Salvius, than to be a great man’s son,” Julian said, looking the Tribune in the eye.
“As the General says,” Marcus said, stone-faced.
Julian debated pursuing the matter. All his life he had lived in his father’s shadow. He had spent most of his time trying to get out into the sun.
“Let’s change the subject,” Julian said briskly. “Something more cheerful, like pestilence, or the virtues of Senators.”
“Isn’t the one the result of the other,” Avitus asked brightly.
The Tribune’s head snapped around.
“My ... adjutant ... has an odd sense of humor,” Julian said. “I invite you to ignore him. I often do.”
Avitus mouthed “adjutant?” but Julian merely grinned back at him.
At the principium he met the command staff, which included various standard bearers, the Legion’s quartermaster, and a young man who was introduced before the others.
“This” Marcus Salvius said, “is Gaius Herennius Actius Pulcher, captain of the cavalry.”
Julian stood before a man with blond hair cut long, and a smile that was just safely short of a smirk. He had the easy stance of the cavalry officer. The voice of Julian’s father came unbidden into his memory: cavalry men think they’re better than everyone else, but don’t you believe it. Still, there was something in the man’s casual arrogance Julian found appealing.
“Hello Gaius Ennius. I assume all is well with you and your cavalry.”
“Salve, General sir. All is not well, I must admit.”
This caught Julian off guard.
“Not well? How?”
“There are reports, sir, from my scouts.”
The First Tribune frowned briefly at the Captain of the Cavalry, but said nothing.
“Reports, you say. Tell me, what do the reports report?” Julian deliberately did not look at Marcus.
“Sir, we have for some time been hearing strange stories from the north, about invaders. I have sent scouts and they return with these stories.”
“We are familiar with the tales, back in the City,” Julian said. “But do you take them seriously? We’re among barbarians, after all. They do love their stories.”
“Yes sir, but there’s more. Two of my scouts are missing. Two of my best.”
Julian considered this for a moment. One missing was not odd, given the life of a scout, but two missing in the same place was another matter. Still, this was a side issue.
“From the north, sir.”
“Well, then, Captain,” Julian said, “we must by all means avoid the north, eh?” He ignored the quick frown that flitted over the Captain’s face.
“As the General says.”
“Besides, I’ll be meeting with the King soon and then we’ll all be headed home again. At the very least, you won’t lose any more scouts.”
Ennius looked at Marcus in surprise.
“You haven’t told him?”
Another missing piece was about to drop into place, Julian thought. He didn’t much like the XII Heraclea so far. Its officers were too secretive.
Marcus spoke briskly, as if giving a military report, looking at a spot somewhere over Julian’s shoulder.
“The Festival of the New Grass, as the Thervingi call it. All the tribes gather here, worship their gods, make new laws, render justice, settle debts. The King will stay, but the rest will scatter for the summer, once it ends.”
“Fascinating,” Julian said, not at all fascinated.
“Today is the final day of the Festival, sir.”
Julian cursed-a dockside curse, not becoming of a Roman noble. The men blanched in surprise.
“Get me to the King, First. Today.”
He sounded as severe as he could, but he knew it was his fault. That week spent gambling in the bathhouses at Duros was suddenly a bitter memory. Had he waited too long? The thought gnawed at his gut that because of his gambling, his foot-dragging, he might actually fail.
“No,” he told himself. “I can’t fail. I’m good at getting people to agree with me. And these barbarians will be an easy mark.”
The previous commander, Neander, had made wild claims to the Emperor but had failed to deliver even one warrior. Now it was Julian’s turn, and he would emerge from this brown land triumphant. It was not too late.
It couldn’t be.
He met more officers-the Legion’s standard-bearer, its aequilifer, who carried the eagle, the quartermaster, the chief of engineers, and so on. Every one of them had to give a report. It was all just noise to him. All he wanted was to get away from officers and reports, to get away from the Legion itself.
When a soldier arrived to say that a delegation from the barbarians had arrived, Julian was prepared to promote him on the spot.
Copyright © 2020 by Ellis L. (Skip) Knox