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Authors: S J A Turney

Tags: #Historical fiction

Sons of Taranis

Marius’ Mules VIII

 

Sons of Taranis

 

 

 

by S. J. A. Turney

 

1st Edition

 

 

“Marius’ Mules: nickname acquired by the legions after the general Marius made it standard practice for the soldier to carry all of his kit about his person.”

 

 

For all my loyal readers, still with me after eight years of Fronto’s troubles. Thank you all from the bottom of my heart

 

 

 

 

 

I would like to thank those people who helped bring Marius' Mules 8 to completion and make it a readable tome. That’s Jenny and Lilian for their initial editing, my beautiful wife Tracey for her support and love, my two wonderful kids for endless procrastinating interruptions. My top cadre Leni, Barry, Paul, Robin, Alun & Stu for beta reading and catching the really dubious typos and issues.

 

Thanks also to Garry and Dave for the cover work and innumerable other fab folk for their support (you all know who you are, and so do I.)

 

 

 

Cover photos by Hannah Haynes, courtesy of Paul and Garry of the Deva Victrix Legio XX. Visit http://www.romantoursuk.com/ to see their excellent work.

 

Cover design by Dave Slaney.

 

Many thanks to the above for their skill and generosity.

 

All internal maps are copyright the author of this work.

Also by S. J. A. Turney:

 

Continuing the Marius' Mules Series

 

Marius’ Mules I: The Invasion of Gaul (2009)

Marius’ Mules II: The Belgae (2010)

Marius’ Mules III: Gallia Invicta (2011)

Marius’ Mules IV: Conspiracy of Eagles (2012)

Marius’ Mules V: Hades’ Gate (2013)

Marius’ Mules VI: Caesar’s Vow (2014)

Marius’ Mules: Prelude to War (2014)

Marius’ Mules VII: The Great Revolt (2014)

 

The Praetorian Series

 

The Great Game (2015)

 

The Ottoman Cycle

 

The Thief's Tale (2013)

The Priest's Tale (2013)

The Assassin’s Tale (2014)

The Pasha’s Tale (2015)

 

Tales of the Empire

 

Interregnum (2009)

Ironroot (2010)

Dark Empress (2011)

 

Short story compilations & contributions:

 

Tales of Ancient Rome vol. 1 - S.J.A. Turney (2011)

Tortured Hearts vol 1 - Various (2012)

Tortured Hearts vol 2 - Various (2012)

Temporal Tales - Various (2013)

A Year of Ravens - Various (Nov 2015)

 

For more information visit http://www.sjaturney.co.uk/

or http://www.facebook.com/SJATurney

or follow Simon on Twitter @SJATurney

 

 

 

 

Prologue

 

AULUS Vincentius stamped his feet in the cold morning air and blew into his frozen hands, his eyes playing across his meagre domain while the adjutant rattled on and on about supply routes and wagon capacities, traders’ fees and endless excruciating mundanities. The young, pink faced clerk seemed oblivious to his commander’s waning interest as he trotted out figures and facts that went unheard.

Beyond the eager fellow, the depot that had been Vincentius’ home and command – and prison – for most of the winter languished under a frost that had killed off all forms of optimistic life, as well as the commander’s spirit. As a decurion, he had led a turma of cavalry in the heroic actions at the foot of Alesia’s slopes mere months ago, when the Gauls were making their last great bid for freedom. And now? Now the only time he drew his blade was to check it for the inevitable rust, which he would then have the young clerk polish out for him while he rotted away in a sullen mood in his unpleasant quarters. His eyes drifted to that building which, even though he hated it with every fibre of his being, still looked inviting when compared to the cold outdoors and the monotonous reports of the adjutant.

Home. A simple round structure with a stone base as high as the windowsill and timber walls above, topped with a conical thatched roof that was home to a million dreadful spiders and which let in more weather than it kept out. And next to that: a small shed which was young Plautus’ accommodation. Other than those two structures, the entire complex consisted of six large supply sheds, one granary, a well, and a stockade that would have trouble holding out against an onslaught of octogenarians. And the goat. Mustn’t forget the goat. The stinking, noisy, over-affectionate goat. He wondered maliciously whether he should take pity on the goat and quarter it with Plautus?

Since the collapse of the great rebellion, things had calmed down considerably in Gaul. There were still troubles here and there, and there were endless rumours of new revolts that would be raised in various quarters of the country. But Vincentius had seen the slave trains at the end of last year, heading for Massilia and the
Graecostadia
slave market in Rome. They had looked like hopeless, dishevelled legions marching to war, there were so many of them. And the burial pits after Alesia had been
vast
. After eight years of war, more than half the population of this entire benighted region had been either killed or enslaved. A new rebellion? By whom… the cows? Because there were more of
them
now than men – or there would have been had they not also been butchered and commandeered by Rome. No, there might be a few small troubles to deal with, but the considered opinion of all the senior officers was that Gaul’s resistance had collapsed.

Why anyone actually wanted this land in the first place rather baffled Aulus Vincentius.

‘Sir?’

He looked ahead once more, focusing on young Plautus. Young? The lad was probably the same age as him in truth, but his eagerness for this dismal supply depot duty made him seem so much younger.

‘What?’

‘Do we hire four new men, sir, or do we wait for instructions from command?’ the man repeated with exaggerated patience.

Vincentius huffed and blew angrily into his hands again. It had both surprised and irritated him when he’d been given this command that he’d had no Roman troops assigned to him. Legionaries would pass through regularly of course, with the supply wagons, but his grand command had consisted of four surly, ill-spoken, hairy, stinking locals who resented his very existence. They had been paid monthly – more than Vincentius thought they could ever be worth, but apparently they were Aedui tribesmen and therefore the commanders seemed to think they needed to be looked after. At least they spoke Latin, even if only as well as a three year old. But then two days ago the four men had gone off-duty, leaving the two Roman officers alone and rather defenceless in the depot, and had gone to carouse in Decetio across the hill. And they’d not come back.

Personally, Vincentius couldn’t care less what happened to them, but for two reasons. Firstly, a huge caravan was due in from Massilia heading north to the winter quarters of the legions, which would require a full complement of workers. And secondly, while he hated the locals, and trusted them about as far as he could kick the goat, it felt a lot less safe with only Plautus keeping him company.

‘Take the coins from the pay chest and head into Decetio. There’ll be a few likely lads that will jump at the chance of steady payment to ride out the winter. See if you can cut the pay offer and still get strong men, though, Plautus. Might as well skim a few coins from the top and make this awful place worthwhile.’

As the young cavalryman saluted and wandered off about his business, Vincentius pulled his cloak – an item of apparel that made about as much difference as a gossamer tunic in this weather – tight around him and scurried off back to his hovel. As he approached, he noted with some relief that at least his adjutant had got a fire going while he’d been out for a shit and a wash. A grey column drifted up from the smoke-hole in the centre of the roof.

With immense gratitude, Vincentius pushed open the door of his accommodation, pausing just inside for a moment to let his eyes adjust as the door clunked shut behind him. The difference in comfort of the interior’s fire-lit warmth – even if it did still smell of the goat which had clearly lived here before him – was palpable, and he dropped the ice-cold cloak onto the chest near the door and strode over towards the small central hearth, rubbing his hands and anticipating the warm orange glow.

He barely noticed the movement in the periphery of his vision, but some sense made him look up away from the fire, the lights still dancing wild in his retinas, just as the figures emerged from the shadows at the edge of the room. Three thoughts ran through his mind in quick succession.

Where is my sword?

Are these my missing workers?

Where is Plautus?

The answers were clear, and not encouraging. His sword was by his bed at the far side of the room, along with anything else of use. There were more than four men here, and they did not have the same churlish air that he’d come to recognise from his Aedui workers, radiating more menace than irritation. And Plautus would be somewhere out in the compound going about the endless tasks that kept him busy.

He tried to shout out in alarm, but a huge hand clamped across his mouth and stifled the noise. How many figures there were, he couldn’t tell, but he could see half a dozen before him, and felt the presence of more behind. They moved like hunting cats, with grace and silence – so eerily, in fact, that he wondered for a moment if they were lemures – the restless dead – come to claim a living victim.

But these were no spirits, for all the terror with which they filled him. Each wore a dark wool cloak that had blended with the shadows at the room’s edge, rendering them almost invisible, and beneath the hoods as they looked upon the Roman commander, emotionless, staring cold faces peered out. Identical ones, too. Masks, he realised with what might have been relief had he not been quite so terrified. All of them wore masks much like the cult ones he’d seen the natives using at their religious ceremonies.

Gauls then?

He felt his bowels and bladder fighting him for independence, and struggled to free himself, but the man who held him had a grip like iron and was enormous, his shoulders at Vincentius’ head level and his arms like sides of beef.

Who are you
? he wanted to ask.

Please don’t hurt me
was what he wanted to say most.

The very idea that they might be here for anything other than violence was ridiculous. Especially as the man before him stepped forward and his cloak billowed out to reveal a heavy Gallic sword at one side of his belt and a sickle –
a sickle
! – tucked into the other.

‘You and I, Roman,’ gurgled a voice like boiling pitch bubbling up from Tartarus, ‘are going to have a talk. And if your words please me, you will die quickly.’

 

Plautus sighed as he shouldered his saddle, buffed to a gleaming state of which even his father would have approved. It was not that he hated his lot in life. After the carnage he’d taken part in at Alesia, this duty was a pleasant rest, really. It was just Decurion Vincentius’ attitude and bad temper that got him down. No matter what Plautus did to try and improve matters, the officer just didn’t seem to care. Or even to notice.

Still, despite the man’s attitude, Plautus had managed to strike up a reasonable rapport with a few of the locals, who, he had discovered, if you treated them as equals, returned the favour. He knew an inn at Decetio where the owner kept a stock of not-unpleasant wine, and was even happy to extend him credit if Vincentius was slow with the pay. And there was a very friendly girl in Decetio, too. He decided that the decurion had pissed him off enough already today that he would be inconveniently late back from the city, giving him plenty of time to enjoy the local comforts. He could spin out any old tale of delays to Vincentius. The man never listened to him anyway.

Taking a deep breath and preparing for more scorn, boredom and insults, he rapped on the decurion’s door and walked inside.

His saddle hit the floor, raising a cloud of dust and goat-hair as he stared at the tableau before him.

Decurion Aulus Vincentius sat before him next to the fire. All around was a pool of gleaming dark liquid in which he sat, unmoving. His feet and hands had been removed – Plautus realised suddenly what was causing the smell of roasting pork, and vomited copiously – and the officer’s torso had been opened up with a razor-sharp implement and ravaged, so that his innards were strewn before him on the floor.

Plautus shivered and stared, panicked and sickened, and barely even registered the dark shapes detaching themselves from the shadows at the room’s edge and converging on him.

 

* * * * *

 

Fronto shuffled in his seat, the cold marble surface barely improved by the single threadbare cushion the brusque attendant had sold him, at a price that had made him mutter and chunter all the way through the corridors and stairwells until he arrived in the stands and at his assigned seat. He glanced left and right. Lucilia seemed perfectly happy, riveted to this performance and with a small smile of satisfaction playing about her lips. Balbus, his father-in-law, ageing and with more white hair on his eyebrows than his head, seemed quiet and content. But then he’d been asleep for the past ten minutes, so he had every right to look relaxed.

Down in the circular orchestra area a man with a ridiculously over-balancing fake bosom tottered around on huge wooden-heeled shoes shrieking out in a ‘feminine voice’ that sounded like a cat being punctured. The chorus hovered at the edge of the stage, their masks permanent frowns of dismay.

‘From the mountains I brought this tendril of freshly cut ivy,’ honked and warbled the excruciatingly unfeminine actor. ‘Our hunt was blessed!’

The chorus thrummed their response, which Fronto missed, submerged beneath his unstoppable yawn which raised a flash of anger from his wife. It wasn’t
his
fault. Well, it was
partially
his fault, admittedly. He never did like tragedies. Miserable, bloodthirsty tales that whiled away a few hours in pointless tedium. Not like a good ribald Roman comedy full of bouncing breasts and humorous misunderstandings and slaves who kept falling over things. But the Greeks really did love their tragedy. In fact, Greek
comedy
was usually more depressing than Roman tragedies. There was always someone who didn’t deserve it getting their eyes put out or being hacked to pieces. Only a few moments ago in this dire rubbish, some messenger in a smiley mask (he’d obviously picked up the wrong prop!) had wandered onto the stage to tell the chorus and the crowd how old Pentheus had been torn limb from limb by ravaging maenads.

Lucilia was always telling him off for relating true stories of the campaign across Gaul that had been so much a part of his life for the last decade, telling him to watch what he said in front of the boys and that he could try and tone down the blood and guts in his stories. Yet while his leisure pursuits tended towards the humorously hedonistic, Lucilia was more than content to sit through hours of Greeks with bad fake boobs ripping pieces off each other and tearing out tongues. If he lived to be a hundred, Fronto swore he would never understand women.

He was aware that his attention had now entirely drifted from the play.

He’d have loved to see some good Roman comedy, but that was one problem with living on the edge of Massilia. Though the land his villa stood on had been claimed as part of the province by Rome, the
boule
– the council – of Massilia still claimed it as theirs. And Massilia was Greek. It may be surrounded by the republic, and there were a number of Roman business concerns in the city, along with a large number of Roman citizens, but the place was still an independent Greek city, and proud of the fact. Consequently there were no uplifting Roman plays to be seen here – just the endless soul destroying tragedies of Greece. There were no bouts in the arena… there
was
no arena. And even the narrow defile that served as a stadium was only used for horse racing at best, far too narrow and tight-cornered for chariots.

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