Book 3: Tarraco

As follows is the first chapter of Tarraco, The third book in The Middle Empire Series. The book in its entirety can be downloaded in the Downloads section.

Chapter I

Centurion Antonius Crispus, hastatus posterior, Third Century, 10th Cohort of the VII Legion Hispania Gemina Pia, stood at the center of the Via Domitia leading into Tarraco. Short, stocky and bandy legged, he was old for his rank, the sure sign of a man who had come up through the ranks. Beside him stood a tesserarius, his third in command, as much a boy as a man. Behind them at the gate through which the two officers had come was a crowd of merchants and city officials. To the north a great army moved inexorably toward the city. The late afternoon sun flashed off the weapons and shields, and two blocks of cavalry flanked the vanguard. Behind the wall of shields, an enormous cloud of dust kicked up by horses and wagons filled the sky. It was early spring, but the day had turned hot and the sun sat molten, high in the west.

The man beside him fidgeted. “Sir? Your orders?” asked the tesserarius.

Antonius turned to look at his junior officer. He wished he had his optio, Domitius Celer, at his side, but Domitius was busy organizing the century. Tiberius Cicero was a bright young man who had yet to draw a sword in anger. He was clearly scared but doing his best to conceal it. That was fine with Antonius. Any man who could look at the army marching on Tarraco and not be scared was a fool, and foolish men were much more likely to get you killed than fearful ones.

“What do you say we march out and teach those barbarians a lesson, Tiberius?” said the centurion.

“Sir?”

Antonius stopped, reminding himself that part of his job was training youngsters like Tiberius for command. He stifled a smile and kept his face dead serious, although he sighed to himself. The Third Century—a mere 80 men—could no more resist the army descending on Tarraco than he, Antonius, could hold the sun in its place. The old centurion had made the remark in an effort to ease his young tesserarius’s tension.  But Tiberius was too young and too scared to get the joke.

“Tiberius Cicero, an officer’s duty is to the Empire and his men. What would happen if the Third Century marched out to fight that army over there?”

The tesserarius swallowed but said nothing.

“We would all die, Tiberius. Would that help the Empire? “

Tiberius fidgeted some more, looking increasingly unhappy. Antonius again resisted the urge to tease him. “It would not, tesserarius. We would have our honor, but the city would fall.”

“Umm. Isn’t it going to fall anyhow, sir?” asked Tiberius.

“Yes,” answered the centurion. “That’s my point.”

The tesserarius was silent for a moment. “How did an army that big get to Barcino without anyone alerting us, sir?” he finally asked.

“Good question, lad. I think we should ask it of our comrades in Narbo, whom that army out there had to pass,” replied Antonius.

“Do you think the Franks took Narbo?” asked Tiberius.

“Not likely. If they had, there would have been a stream of refugees coming south, and as much as those fellows of ours up north don’t approve of us here in Hispania, we would have gotten word. No, I expect they let that army march right past them and didn’t say a word,” said the Centurion.

“Why would they do that, sir?”

“You’re full of good questions today, Tiberius.  I suspect the answer is politics. The only thing more confusing than politics are the people who practice it. I try to avoid both and just do my duty,” replied Antonius.

“What is our duty, sir?” asked Tiberius.

Antonius turned to look at the human avalanche descending on Tarraco. “Our duty, tesserarius, is to be a thorn in that army’s side,” he answered quietly. “Did you send the riders out?”

“Yes, sir. Two, by different roads, to Legio,” answered Tiberius.

“Good. The VII Legion will come,” said Antonius. “The trick, tesserarius, will be staying alive long enough to be here when they arrive.”

Turning back toward the gate he eyed the crowd of merchants and politicians distastefully.  “Our first job will be to deal with that lot,” he growled.

Gaius Porcius, the First Douviri, or leading magistrate for the city, separated himself from the crowd and came forward. Antonius eyed him warily. Fabius was a small, slight man with a limp. To Antonius’s way of thinking, Fabius was not, all in all, a bad sort. Fabius was a veteran of the XI Legion Claudia Pia Fidelis, although as a clerk he had never done any actual fighting. He was not particularly corrupt, or at least not any more than most, certainly not as much as his junior co-douviri, Lucius Thorius. Lucius would steal the coins out of a corpse’s mouth. He was a heavy, florid man, who favored expensive togas, gold bracelets, and expensive rings.  He followed Fabius at a discreet distance.

“What do you intend, Centurion? ” asked Fabius.

“I have sent an alert to the VII Legion in Legio, Fabius.”

Lucius shouldered his way into the conversation. “But surely you will not try to defend the city with your small force, Centurion? If you did, the Franks would put us all to the sword when they took the city, just like our own army does,” he said.

“I was not under the impression that a junior douviri issued orders to the army,” Antonius replied coldly.

“He has a point, Antonius,” put in Fabius. “We both know that the entire cohort, let alone a single century, could not defend Tarraco against that army.”

“I have no intention of surrendering, even if that army out there would accept it,” said Antonius.

“You endanger us all,” hissed Lucius.

“And you speak treason, douviri,” replied Antonius. “Do you know what the punishment for treason is?”

“Gentlemen, gentlemen,” said Fabius, “there is no time for this discussion.” Turning to Lucius he said,  “Antonius will do as he sees proper. Neither you nor I can issue orders to officers of the VII Legion. That is a matter for its legate. In any case, Roman soldiers do not surrender. It is an affront to the Empire.” Turning back to Antonius he said, “I would ask you not to speak of treason at this time, sir. My colleague and I are responsible for the residents of the city, and we must try to insure that they will not be ill-treated. Surely you can see we, too, have a duty in this matter?”

By this time several of the leading merchants and family representatives, dressed in everything from formal togas to everyday smocks and pants, had crowded forward and began to surround the centurion and his tesserarius. Antonius knew most of them, and thought very little of any of them. Antonius had already concluded that a defense of the city would be a disaster, but he had never bothered to tell Fabius what his plan was. If he told them now it would seem as if he was yielding under pressure, and that irked him. But then again, it was his own fault for not communicating with the civilian leaders. So he would just have to bite the leather strap and tell them.

“I have no intention of defending the city, Fabius. The VII Legion is thin enough without throwing away a century,” he said. “Nor will I surrender the Third Century. I have stocked and barricaded the Praetorian Tower, and I will move the Century there directly.”

“If you do not surrender, they will kill us all,” one heavy faced merchant said. Antonius narrowed his eyes and tried to place the man, but he was unfamiliar.

“And you are?” asked Fabius, putting his hands on his hips.

“Julius Dasumi,” the man replied in a tone suggesting that the centurion should know who he was.

Dasumi. Yes, that explained the tone. The man probably had more wealth than all the rest of Tarraco’s merchants combined. Julius Dasumi. The army gossip was that, when his sister had been taken by Mauri slave traders last year, he had been less than enthusiastic about getting her back. It took the First Cohort of the VII Legion to do that. The story was that when she got back to Corduba, she had run him out of town with the backing of Marcus Favonius, head centurion of the First Cohort, and acting commander of the Mauretania expedition. Word was the man’s sister and Marcus were lovers. It was a thoroughly delicious tale.

Antonius looked him up and down slowly. “Maybe we should get your sister up from Corduba to scatter that lot out there.”

Julius flushed. “You will regret that comment, centurion.”

“Oh, will I?” answered Antonius softly.

“Gentlemen, the enemy approaches and we bicker,” protested Fabius. Turning to Julius Dasumi, he said sharply, “Step back, sir. You impede our discussion.”

Antonius was impressed. He didn’t think Fabius had it in him to give orders to the head of the wealthiest family in Hispania. Fabius must have done more than clerk for the XI Claudia. Julius Dasumi reluctantly stepped back, shooting the centurion a poisonous look. “I had best watch my back,” thought Antonius to himself.

Fabius, turning back to Antonius, was just managing to keep his impatience under control. The Franks were within a mile of the city, and a group of them had separated themselves from the van and were trotting forward. They were unarmored and carried round, wooden shields. Several had long spears, and one had a large silver torq around his neck. Antonius glanced back at the Franks and then signaled Tiberius, who strode back toward the gate, gathering soldiers to him.

Turning back to Fabius, he said, “Douviri, I leave the matter of negotiations to you. I will retire with my century to the tower. May the gods protect you and our city.”

Fabius nodded and waved a group of men forward who quickly gathered around him. Antonius, with one last look at the Franks, pushed his way through the crowd and followed his tesserarius.

The city, founded by the great Scipio, father of the man who brought Hannibal to his knees, was open to the enemy.

Clodius Oppius of the Ala Victrix auxiliary cavalry kept his horse at a slow lope. Two other mounts trailed behind him. His friend Macro had the easier ride. Clodius was ordered to head south to just above Saguntum before taking the road that turned northwest to Caesaraugusta. Macro had only to head north to Ilerda, then west following the Iberus River to Legio. He would get there days ahead of Clodius.

Macro’s easy ride put Clodius in a foul mood. He would ride twice as far as Macro and all for nothing. It would be Macro who brought the news of the Franks. And it was Macro who would reap the glory. Stupid army! This is what always happened: a bunch of thickheaded soldiers gave orders that made no sense, and the cavalry had to pay the price. He set himself in for the ride. It was a long way to Legio.

Macro Aelius, late member of the Ala Victrix auxiliary cavalry, lay crumpled in the middle of the road. A spreading stain of blood glistened on the polished stones around him. Half a dozen riders looked down at the body.

“He didn’t put up much of a fight,” one of them commented.

Another shrugged. “He was carrying a message. No shield, no spear, what do you expect?”

“I heard this VII Legion is a bunch of women and children,” answered the first man. “This proves it.”

“This proves nothing, except you’re not much of a swordsman. You had to stab him four times before you killed him,” the other man said.

“The important thing is that the VII Legion is not going to know what’s up,” said a third man. “I don’t know if they are women and children, but they aren’t very bright if they didn’t figure we would seal off the roads going north.”

The first man leaned down and prodded the body on the road with a lance. Getting no reaction, he turned and trotted back toward Tarraco. The others followed in his wake.

Praefectus Castrorum Marcus Favonius rode by himself, his staff trailing behind him. He hadn’t said he wanted to be alone, but his men picked up on his mood and kept their distance. The day was early, and spring had finally arrived in Hispania’s northern mountains.  The fields were a rich green, and trees were just coming into bud. Mountains crowded in on the arrow-straight road with its stones polished by carts and hooves. The traffic moved aside when they saw his officer’s uniform, his staff and the banner of the VII Legion. But in spite of the lovely day, Marcus was in a gloomy state of mind.

His elevation from Primus Pilus, or First Centurion, to fourth in command of the VII Legion Hispania had put a certain distance between him and his staff, and Marcus found that disconcerting. Like any good officer, he had always led his men from the front. But a Praefectus Castrorum is not a line officer. You don’t put your commanders into the middle of a battle where some lucky barbarian could cut them down. So rather than fighting alongside his men, he sent them into battle. He was no longer a warrior but a chooser of the slain.

But was it his new post that was depressing him, or Aelia? He had seen her off at first light from the port of Brigantium, and he was now making his way back to the VII Legion’s base at Legio. Whenever he considered Aelia, his mind went off on tangents. Marcus did not mind tangents. He loved to daydream and had discovered that it was actually a very useful way of working through problems. He had “day dreamed” the solution to defeating the Mauri in Mauretania, which is why he was now fourth in command of Hispania’s only regular legion.

But thinking of the Mauri brought him back to Aelia, whom he had rescued from the slave raiders and brought back to Hispania. Aelia was a puzzle to him. What did this woman see in him? Marcus had no illusions about himself. He was of average height and looks, a bit overweight, and from a modest equestrian family. Aelia, on the other hand, was stunningly beautiful, Patrician to the core, and the wealthiest women in Hispania.

At first he thought her attraction to him was just gratitude for saving her life, but it was now a year since the rescue and here he was seeing her off on a ship to Gedes. On their return from Mauretania last year he had accompanied her to Cordoba to help her against her brother, after which they had become lovers. But when he had to leave with his cohort for Legio, she announced that after she had taken care of some business matters she would take a ship from Gedes to Brigantium and visit him.

Marcus thought she was simply being polite, since he could not imagine a woman like Aelia in a rough garrison city like Legio, but three months later she arrived, accompanied by more baggage than Marcus thought possible. His former optio and now chief of staff, Flavius Priscus, thought that this was likely more supplies than Xerxes brought with him to invade Greece. “And he was said to have a million men,” said Flavius shaking his head in wonder.

Aelia took over the largest house in Legio, which  by her standards was little more than a hut, and proceeded to create a court. She and her adopted sister Rachel held banquets and dinner parties, hosted entertainers, and sallied forth into the countryside to picnic. Marcus was certain that trying to recreate bright Cordoba in Hispania’s far gloomier north would stir local resentment, but Aelia could charm the scales off a snake.

But only part of Aelia’s magic was her grace and ability to captivate an audience. She was Patrician born, but she had a touch of the plebian about her that was no act. She could beguile a legate and sympathize with the lot of a junior tesseraius. Marcus had even begun to resent her skill at getting people to do exactly what she wanted them to do.

She was also one of the most intelligent people Marcus had ever encountered, having demonstrated considerable courage during her captivity. In short, just the kind of person most liable to make Marcus feel insecure. But the only time he had hinted at his insecurity, she had been sharp with him. “Men,” she said, “You worship beauty and wealth. The first is fleeting and second is spent, and then we die. I want to be with someone at the end who I can stand to be in the same room with. Don’t speak to me of this again, Marcus,” and she strode off and wouldn’t speak to him for a whole day.

At first he was angry—and hurt—but he was smart enough to see the truth in it, and he did find the line about being in the same room pretty funny. So it was finally patched up and Marcus was careful to keep his insecurities to himself.

But here he was riding away from the woman he…what? Marcus turned that thought over in his mind. Was beguiled with, certainly. In love with? Well, if he wasn’t in love, why was he so down and depressed? So, maybe he really was in love, and maybe he should spend less time analyzing it all.

He craved company, but he could hardly call his staff forward to join him at this point. They were all walking—or riding, as it were—on eggshells, trying not to annoy their moody commander. He could hear an occasional laugh, quickly hushed by whoever was in charge back there. And even if he did call them forward, he could hardly talk about what was bothering him. That kind intimacy would only embarrass them and, in any case, was hardly conducive to proper discipline.

What he really needed to do was talk with his friends and comrades Flavius and Demaratus. But could he talk to them about this? Not Flavius, who actually knew less about women than Marcus. And the Greek—handsome, smooth and experienced—would be amused. Still, they were his best friends in the world, and, unlike the staff trailing behind him, they wouldn’t be afraid to cheer him up.

Marcus sat up a little straighter. “Get a hold of yourself, Marcus Favonius. Two years ago you were on the run, pursued by Praetorian assassins. Now you are fourth in command of a legion. If the emperor Decius stays in power, you might make tribune. You are consort to a rich and beautiful woman. It is a lovely spring day, and you are riding on exactly the kind of horse you like: slow and stupid. Life is good. What can go wrong?”

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