Authors: Douglas Jackson
Tags: #Fiction, #Action & Adventure, #Historical, #War & Military
About the Book
Hailed a ‘Hero of Rome’, Valerius is not the man he once was – scarred both physically and emotionally by the battles he has fought. His sister is mortally ill. His father is in self-imposed exile. And neither is Rome the same city as the one he left.
The Emperor Nero grows increasingly paranoid. Those who seek power for themselves whisper darkly in the emperor’s ears. They speak of a new threat, one found within the walls of Rome itself. A new religious sect, the followers of Christus, denies Nero’s divinity and is rumoured to be spreading sedition.
Nero calls on his ‘Hero of Rome’ to become a ‘Defender of Rome’, to seek out this rebel sect, to capture its leader, a man known as Petrus. To fail would be to forfeit his life, and the lives of twenty thousand Judaeans living in Rome. But as Valerius begins his search, a quest that will take him to the edge of the Empire, he will discover that success may cost him nearly as much as failure.
DEFENDER OF ROME
For Bill Jackson
THEY CAME AT
him in waves over the crushed summer grass, tall and lean, bred to war, their spear points glittering in the low morning sunlight and the sound of their coming like thunder. And, as they came, he slew them.
He had been born for this: to bring death. His mind exploded with the savage, atavistic joy of the warrior as the point of the
, with the power of his strong right arm behind it, took out throats and spilled guts, each stroke confirmed by the haze of scarlet that is the only true signature of battle.
One by one he watched them die and he counted his victims by the names of the Romans he avenged. For Lunaris. For Paulus. For Messor. For Falco.
The next stroke faltered and the battle froze around him, the screams of the dying trapped like flies in a web; spears caught at the very moment of the plunge; entangled enemies balanced precariously on the razor edge between life and death. No, not Valerius. Gaius Valerius Verrens lives.
I am Gaius Valerius Verrens
. The words echoed in his head and he wondered if he had joined the gods in their Elysian fastness. That was when he felt her presence. A flare of flame-tipped auburn at the very edge of his vision. Piercing green eyes that drilled into his soul. Boudicca. His enemy. At her unspoken command battle resumed. The spears fell. Men lived or died. But now the tempo had changed. Always, in the past, his had been the speed, his had been the vision. Other men had been too slow or too blind. Other men had died. Now it was different.
Caught in a trap of his own making, Valerius moved with the leaden torpor of a man forcing his way through a chest-deep lake. The sword was a dead weight in his hand and he struggled to keep the big curve-edged shield high. The blades of his enemies flashed and darted, a blizzard of bright iron that sought the weak points in his armour and the soft flesh of his throat, and he was helpless against them. The sting of edged metal made him scream in frustration and pain and for the first time he knew the despair of the vanquished. He called upon his gods, but knew they had already forsaken him.
A woman’s hand held the sword that killed him.
He opened his eyes. ‘Fabia?’
‘You were dreaming. You cried out.’
It took a moment to resolve the familiar sights and scents of the bedroom with what had gone before. His body trembled with nervous energy and the sheets twisted beneath him were damp with sweat. It had not been like that at all. He had stood back like a coward, aloof from the battle, a new-made cripple. Men had died, in their thousands and their tens of thousands, but he had not killed a single one. Fabia leaned over him, golden and beautiful and safe, and placed a cool hand on his brow. Eyes the colour and complexity of polished sapphire filled with concern, and something more than concern. A pinprick of guilt speared him and he instinctively reached for the pendant at his throat. It was a tiny golden boar, the symbol of the Twentieth legion.
‘You must have loved her very much.’ It was a statement, not a question.
I killed her
. It wasn’t true. He had betrayed Maeve, but the sword that had taken her life in Boudicca’s last battle had been another man’s.
Fabia bent to kiss the mottled stump of his right arm, her breasts brushing lightly against his stomach. The loss of his hand had been the price of life. Each day he awoke surprised it was no longer there. Each day he endured a pain for which there was no cure. It was his burden and he would carry it for ever. Like his guilt.
He lay back and stared at the painted ceiling. Plump, cheerful nymphs hunted deer and antelope across lush grassland as the goddess Diana looked on approvingly. Fabia sighed and settled half across him, her body supple and soft against his angular hardness. He was three weeks from his twenty-sixth birthday and it had been almost two years since he returned from a Britain bled dry by Rome’s vengeance to be acclaimed Hero of Rome; the Corona Aurea placed upon his brow by Emperor Nero himself. The honour had brought him fame, which he neither wanted nor deserved, and Nero’s favour, which time had taught him was a fickle thing and not to be relied upon.
At first, the young Emperor had delighted in having a man close to his own age – a champion of war – close by his side. Valerius must attend court each day at the gilded palace on the Palatine Hill to decorate Nero’s assemblies and delight him with his tales of battle and comradeship and sacrifice. Of course he was flattered: what soldier, even a soldier as damaged as he, would not be? Great men, consuls and generals, bowed to him amongst the marbled pillars and painted statues, beautiful women sought him out and ushered him to shadowy corners where they whispered of unlikely possibilities and even more unlikely certainties. And all the time, he felt the Emperor’s hard little over-bright eyes following his every move and growing ever hotter. He wasn’t a fool. He had heard the stories. In the legion he had lived with men, good men and bad, and knew that every man’s taste did not follow natural lines and that some men knew no boundaries at all. As a boy he had known love, or something he had believed was love, but what was acceptable between boys did not have to be right between men. Before the offer was made he let it be known that it would be refused.
To avoid the storm which would inevitably follow he had spent a year living in Greece, hoping to be forgotten. The self-imposed exile gave him the opportunity to resume his philosophical studies under the great Apollonius, who had halted his wanderings for a time in Athens. But when he returned his name was still on some courtier’s list. He continued to be invited to the Palatine. He was watched. But now the watching was different. Dangerous. Previously, when he had praised the tactics of Britain’s governor his audience had cried out in agreement. Now his listeners turned away with shakes of the head, muttering words like ‘despot’ and ‘butcher’. Paulinus had gone too far, they said, he had despoiled the province when he should have revitalized it. Paulinus was to be recalled. Now when men stood at his shoulder he understood they were not listening, but memorizing and recording for the time when …
A slim finger trailed through the cooling sweat that had pooled in the hollow of his chest. ‘We should bathe.’
Valerius dashed the melancholy from his head and smiled at her as she uncoiled herself from his body and led the way to the little bathhouse. When they had enjoyed the mixed pleasures of the
, Fabia wrapped herself in a sheet and ushered him to a polished stone table where she oiled his body with practised hands, easing each muscle of his shoulders, back and legs, then turning him over to do the same to chest and stomach. As her strong fingers fluttered over him he felt the hot blood of desire rising again. Before he could act on it she dropped the sheet and swung herself up to settle over him in a single movement. The intensity of her heat made him gasp.
‘I suppose this means you’ll cost me more,’ he grumbled, attempting to think of anything but what was happening below his waist.
‘Oh no, Valerius.’ Fabia’s voice was the texture of raw silk drawn across rough wood. ‘This is my gift to myself. Stay just the way you are.’
Much later, she saw him to the door and raised her lips to allow a decorous farewell kiss. Fabia Faustina, high class courtesan, friend of the Empress Poppaea Augusta Sabina, and probably the most beautiful woman in Rome. Strange that she should love him when she knew he could never return it.
‘And what do the courts promise today? Are you defence or prosecution or both?’ she asked lightly.
‘Neither.’ Valerius allowed himself a sad smile. ‘I must be with Olivia.’
Fabia stared at him, but her thoughts remained concealed in the blue-gold depths of her eyes. ‘Tell her I send my prayers.’
Where Fabia’s beauty glowed like an imperial park in full blossom, Olivia’s was more ethereal: an Alpine snowfield touched only by the wind, or a sculpture of virgin marble before the artist applied the first brush of paint. Valerius stared down at his sister as she lay in the house on the Clivus Scauri. Regal and pale as an Egyptian princess, her long, almost raven hair framed her face, each strand placed precisely by her maid, Julia. His sister had the sculpted features so admired in the family, but more delicate than in the male line. A slim aristocratic nose, a long, curving jawline that reflected resolve and strength of purpose, and a mouth that, before her illness, had always seemed ready to smile. In fact, as he studied her, he realized she had changed even in the short time since he had last seen her, and he replaced the word ‘delicate’ with ‘fragile’.
‘She is wasting away.’ He tried to keep the accusation from his voice.
The fastidiously dressed man at his side stirred uncomfortably. ‘We are doing everything we can. The serving girl administers the daily draught as she has been instructed. She bathes her mistress only with warm water and serves thin soup three times a day.’
‘More is spilled than eaten,’ Valerius pointed out.
Metellus, the physician, frowned, making his pendulous jowls quiver, and the watery eyes narrowed. ‘We can only force so much upon her or it will do more harm than good. She is thin but not yet skeletal. With the gods’ will there is still hope. You have sacrificed to Asclepius as I advised?’
Valerius’s faith in the gods had been sorely tested by the two days he had spent in the Temple of Claudius waiting to be torn limb from limb by vengeful British warriors. The fact that he had survived had done nothing to restore it, but he would do anything that might help Olivia. ‘I visited the hospital on the Tiber island this morning and the priest dedicated a white ram to the god.’ The doctor nodded, impressed. A white ram was no mere token. He wondered if his fee was quite sufficient. Valerius continued: ‘The maid, Julia, has also carried a sacrifice to the Good Goddess.’
Again, this was only sensible. Bona Dea, the goddess of women, healing and fertility, could be counted on to intercede on Olivia’s behalf from her temple on the Aventine Hill.
‘Then you also are doing everything you can.’ He hesitated. ‘Perhaps if your father …?’
Valerius shook his head. ‘He won’t come here.’ He didn’t have to say more. His father Lucius had staked their family’s future on a match between Olivia and an indecently rich but very elderly second cousin of the Emperor. Olivia had taken one look at the balding, wrinkled figure of her betrothed, a man blessed with a single blackened tooth, and vowed to cut her wrists there and then. Lucius’s reputation had suffered more from the fact that he had capitulated to her threat than that she’d rejected Calpurnius Ahenobarbus. Under the law, he would have been entitled to sell Olivia into slavery or even kill her, but for all his stuffy patrician pomposity he had always been a loving father and had chosen disgrace rather than cause more distress to his daughter. Since the scandal he had locked himself away on the family estate at Fidenae and devoted himself to his grapes and his olive trees. Valerius had contacted him three times with the news that she was sick, but on each occasion his messenger had been turned away. The physicians who treated her speculated that the gods were taking their revenge for Olivia’s lack of filial devotion, but Valerius dismissed the theory as a desperate attempt to justify their failure. He suspected that Metellus, a well-meaning drunkard who claimed to have studied in Smyrna and Alexandria, had now joined their number.
As he watched, Olivia’s eyes opened, shale dark, liquid and slightly bemused. Recognition came slowly, but when she was certain of his identity her pale lips parted in a faint smile and before the eyes closed again her hand fluttered towards his. He sat on the bed and took it; it was cool and almost weightless. Olivia sighed lightly and he felt her fingers tighten. It will be like this when she dies, he thought, this helpless emptiness. I will sit here and her hand will grow cold and the room will grow dark and I will beg her to stay, but her spirit will fly from her as I have seen it fly from so many dying men. He began talking, of hope and love and the future, knowing she heard him but not whether she understood. And as he talked his mind drifted back to a time when a skinny girl with a dirty face and a torn tunic dogged his every footstep, forever asking foolish questions he couldn’t answer.
Everlasting days by the narrow, tree-lined river that provided water for the estate, hunting little green frogs among the weeds and plastering each other with slimy, speckled spawn. Other days spent chasing elusive brown songbirds among the vines in the certain knowledge that they would flutter to the next row and the chase would be up again. The bitter taste of unripe grapes and the awfulness that inevitably followed. Watching each other grow.
And the day that caused him to wonder what kind of man he truly was. When his patience finally snapped and, encouraged by the slave boys, he had locked her in the cellar below the house and walked away. He would never forget the look in her eyes when he returned an hour later to find her frozen in the darkness. Or the note of accusation in the whispered child’s voice. ‘Please never leave me alone again, Valerius.’
He squeezed her hand and stood up.
‘I will do anything to make her well.’ He knew the words alone meant nothing. He might have been talking to himself. He might have been talking to the gods he no longer believed in. Instead, he found he was addressing the fat physician whose presence he had entirely forgotten.
Metellus felt a thrill of panic at the certainty in Valerius’s voice; the tall, commanding presence and the hard eyes that pinned him like a legionary javelin. He had done all he could, truly he had. He raced through the remedies in his mind as if he was arguing for his life. The herbs mixed in warm leaded wine to cool the fever. Wolfsbane in minute doses to stimulate the blood. Extract of hemp to calm. The regime? Exemplary. Each step taken with a physician’s care and forethought. Was there anything more? No. Twice no. Except …