The barbarians charged, blue-streaked bodies waving spears and long oval shields. Their war cries echoed through the chasm, sending their chilling screams across the Lyrian ranks from all sides. He could see the panic, the nervous fidgeting in his men, the shifting back and forth. The shield wall was breaking, gaps were appearing in the ranks as green recruits tried to push their way behind those trying to hold their ground. Confusion was spreading, sending his legion into a disordered mass. Marcellus stepped forward, shouting at the top of his lungs to hold the line, to reform ranks. He opened his mouth—and no sound came. He could not get the air through his throat. He pushed, his whole lungs pushing to get the air, the command, out so that his army would not be crushed against the chasm walls. But nothing came. And with horror he realized it was too late. The legion behind him had turned their backs to the rushing foe, had thrown down their swords and shields so as to flee the faster. He stood alone against the entire blue-painted barbarian charge. For some reason the Eagle banner of the tenth legion had been set aflame. Marcellus could not understand it. The sacred banner, the banner that legion had lived and died for over a century, was burning to tiny cinders before his eyes. His entire life, ashes floating away in the wind. The first barbarian reached him, and Marcellus swung his gladius for the incredibly tall and muscled body, but the barbarian nimbly ducked under the swing and thrust his spear into Marcellus’s unprotected right side. The spear sank deeper, piercing the organs beneath his ribs, the fire of the wound chasing him into the awaiting darkness. He tried to scream with the pain, but no sound would come. He screamed and screamed in silent agony.
A tiny gurgle escaped his throat, and Marcellus awoke, his body awash in cold sweat. He threw his blanket off shakily, sitting up to make sure his side remained whole. The tent was still dark in the gray hours before dawn. There was the quiet orderly shuffle of cooks preparing the breakfast meal and sentries making the rounds. The tenth legion, alive and well. Marcellus allowed a long and shaky breath to escape his lungs. Just a dream. Just a horrible dream.
“Are you alright, sir?” Bernadine asked. The best slaves almost had a sixth sense tuned to the slightest alteration in their masters. Bernadine must have woken up the moment Marcellus had shifted in his cot.
Marcellus rubbed his eyes, letting the drowsiness of sleep fall off from him. Now that he was awake he might as well make his rounds. Too much sleep would leave him groggy for the rest of the day. “It was nothing, Bernadine. Just a bad dream. Please, don’t trouble yourself about it. There’s still an hour before muster.”
“A bad omen, to have a nightmare before the day of battle.” Bernadine murmured, casting about for his cloak. This far north the countryside could get very cold.
“It was nothing.” Marcellus said more emphatically. The last thing he needed was a rumour of bad omens tunneling like some worm through the legion’s courage. “Say nothing of it.”
“Of course, sir.” Bernadine nodded, bemused that Marcellus had even bothered to order it. He was right. Bernadine had served Marcellus’ household for twenty years and had never betrayed their confidence. That dream had shaken him up badly, if he was beginning to doubt the tact of his own slave. Marcellus ran his hands through his hair, wiping the sweat from his forehead, and pulled the tent flap back to reveal the familiar layout of his camp.
The ghostly light of the unrisen sun gave a sort of surreal cast to the legion. Dim gray shapes walked through the foggy and silent camp tending to horses or small cooking fires. Except for the human motion and noise, the night was doused in a total silence. It was too cold for the insects, and too early for the birds. Two men outside his tent saluted sharply, fist to chest, as the banners of the tenth Eagle and the personal Sunhand banner of the Marcellus family waved in the chilly morning breeze. Ringing the camp was a hastily but expertly crafted ditch and wooden stockade. Sentries paced back and forth along the edge. The cold kept everyone moving briskly, using the heat of their own exertion to combat the northern chill. Most of these men came from the seashore or the countryside nearby. The balmy winters of the south gave little preparation for the northern borderlands of Illyria. In truth, the barbarians had already pierced uncomfortably far into the countryside. They had come like some winter monsoon, howling down from the north and overwhelming the armies that had dared to stand in their path. Of course the barbarians hadn’t yet faced a legion, but the reports of their numbers were daunting enough. The Ogres who inhabited the northern forests had no cities to speak of, but the populations of their tribes reached into the millions. The Suweii tribe, it seemed, had decided to emigrate en masse to the fairer soil of the south. If they were not repulsed, the entire northern border would collapse as all the other Ogre tribes watched the incursion and followed its example. The Ogres were canny and cautious. If Illyria ever showed a sign of weakness, they would come in the hundreds of thousands to rape the land. This invasion had to be stopped now. Now, before the Suweii tribe multiplied into ten, twenty more. Before the barbarians believed the fame of Illyrian warriors was a thing of the dusty past and that they had now grown soft and pliable. And winning the battle would not be enough. The battle could not emerge as a dubious victory, or a stalemate. If the Ogres once believed they could stand against an Illyrian Legion, they would come hurtling down from the mountains like an avalanche. The Suweii tribe would have to be utterly annihilated. Wiped from the face of the earth. Extinguished, as an example for all the rest that invading Illyria was tantamount to suicide. So that the Ogre children would grow up learning of the fierce Lyrian demons that devoured those who ventured too far from home. That was the story this battle would have to generate. The story that would protect Illyria from the Ogres for the next ten generations.
“Sir?” An attendant approached, waiting for the reason behind Marcellus’ early rising. Marcellus’ back ached from the cold, the scars of too many battles coming back to haunt him. “Tell all the marshals to assemble at the field headquarters. We have today’s march to discuss.”
“Consul.” The attendant saluted, and left to wake up those marshals still in their beds. The tenth Legion had grown used to Marcellus’ attention to maneuver. Even when he served as a Marshal in the marchlands, his battalion would march twice or three times as far as the rest of the legion. The other marshals would joke about Marcellus’ Nomads, because he could not seem to settle his men down in any one place. But the Consul had nodded in quiet approval. That was a long time ago, when he still served under that legend who had almost single-handedly doubled the size of the Republic. Marcellus wondered if Maximus would have been so eager to wage that war, now that he saw how the huge expanse of frontier strained Illyria’s armies on every side. Legions could no longer be stationed at the borders, but instead as response units who would go to face barbarian raids only after they’d wreaked their havoc. Raids would come and go before the Legions could even reach the battle. Raids that kept any serious settlements from even inhabiting the borders of the Republic. It wasn’t right. Citizens going without protection, having to hold their own. Marcellus could only hope that the barbarians brought under the Lyrian umbrella of civilization would convert in time to form new Legions capable of holding the line. So much rested on whether or not the conquered provinces embraced the life of civilization over the tribes. If their worship of Bales and Vosta and all the others fell away for the reverence due to the Goddess.
If Maximus were still here, he’d laugh at Marcellus’ constant fretting and remark that the same skill that had conquered the land would protect it. But Maximus wasn’t here to lead the armies anymore. Only his marshal of the Nomads remained to finish the work Maximus had begun. Now Marcellus was the consul, now Marcellus had to crush the Ogre tribes with the same ruthless efficiency as the man he would have followed into the depths of Hell. The mantle was his. Now the Sunhand banner flew beside the flag of the Tenth Legion. Marcellus tried to surreptitiously rub away the aches of his body as he made his way to the field tent. He almost had followed Maximus to the gates of Hell. Twice. He was prouder of those scars than anything else he owned. They were the proudest achievement of his life.
Now the cook fires were into full swing, the smell of roasting mutton permeating the air. It was a good smell. The smell of a legion operating with perfect assurance and efficiency. An army that trusted its leaders and trusted themselves. An army that was calm enough to eat breakfast before they set out to do battle. Knowing that they would come back alive.
“Consul?” The marshals had gathered beneath the field headquarters, unrolling carefully kept maps to read by the light of the burgeoning dawn.
“Fabius.” Marcellus grinned, clasping wrists with his most trusted underling. Fabius had served under Maximus as well. When Marcellus’ wing had given way, Fabius’ had held. So well that he detached his back ranks to swing left to the rescue. Fabius knew defense as well as Marcellus knew how to move an army. He was the one man Marcellus could trust to take over the Legion.
“Another nice day for marching homeward, Consul?” Fabius asked wryly.
“Every day is a nice day to march homeward.” Marcellus responded, and the marshals all laughed in assent. No one liked the fact that the Legion had been retreating for the past ten days before the barbarian incursion. That the Legion had not offered a battle before it had turned tail and made for the sea. But Marcellus could not risk a battle that would not be decisive. This battle had to be the only battle, before it became a war for the survival of the whole Republic.
“Gentleman, today will be a tricky one for all of us. The barbarians are hot for a fight. They’ve given up on provisions or looting or anything so that they can catch up to us today. And today we’re going to let them catch us.”
A cheer broke out from the marshals, eyes lighting up like hounds delighting with the sudden knowledge that they’d been unleashed. “Shall we form the line, sir?” One delighted marshal piped up. He was too young to be a marshal. But Marcellus had seen a fire in him. He would do okay, if that enthusiasm didn’t kill him first.
“Not here. We’re going to march ourselves into a corner. We’re going to pin ourselves to the wall. We’re going to retreat until we have to turn and fight because the barbarians have left us no place else to go.”
“You mean marching into the gorge of Amelia? But that ground is boxed in on three sides.” The murmur of the marshals gave a note of unrest. Marcellus always chose the best ground. They knew that, and that was why they followed his marches whether they went forward, backwards, up, or down. But this?
“The barbarians will see us cornered, they’ll see us panicked, and they’ll come charging into that gorge without forming any ranks or any plan of battle. They think they’ve already defeated us. That today will just be a matter of mopping up.”
“And won’t it be true?” Fabius asked. “The Legion is always ready to fight, but their backs to the wall with thousands of Ogres screaming down their throats?”
Marcellus shivered from the image of the burning banner in his dream. “The barbarians are confident. They’ve defeated three garrisons and are now routing a Lyrian Legion. We are going to use that confidence. We are going to destroy them with that confidence. Once they see us in that gorge, they won’t keep any reserves or any guard. Their entire tribe will rush into the teeth of these mountains. And behind them the second half of our Legion will emerge from the forest. We’ll wait until they’re fully engaged, and then the hunters will become the hunted. They’ll be packed so closely together that they won’t even be able to turn around before they’re spitted on our swords. And then all their courage will turn to panic. No matter how brave a man is, the moment he believes he’s about to be stabbed from behind, that man will throw away all his courage and take to the hills. But this time the hills will be too high for them to go anywhere. They’ll be pigs penned and helpless and awaiting the slaughter.”
The marshals almost whistled in awe. Fabius pulled the map of the gorge closer to avail his aging eyes. “The timing will have to be perfect.” He commented. “Too soon, and they’ll be able to turn to meet the threat. Too late, and they’ll have crushed the first half before the second can engage. Splitting an army is always risky. What if the soldiers can’t organize quickly enough to come to our relief?”
“Fabius, I’m entrusting the Eagle to you.” Marcellus said. “You’re my anvil. Leave the hammer to me.”
“Will you want the Sunhand?” Fabius asked calmly.
Marcellus hesitated. The Ogres probably wouldn’t understand the significance of the Consul’s banner. But if they noticed in time, if they knew it to be a ruse and managed to wheel around. . . “The Sunhand goes with you. My son shall carry it.” Marcellus gave a nervous breath. “The Sunhand Banner must be protected. Do you understand? It is the honor of my family.” Fabius nodded, hiding the knowing smile that Marcellus could read in his eyes. He would have had to punch him, if that smile had reached his mouth. He’d be damned if Publius died in his first engagement. He’d be damned if his firstborn son died in this battle today.
“Shall we wake the troops?” A marshal asked, judging how long it would be before the sun rose.
“No.” Marcellus shook his head. “Everything needs to be normal. The legion will be unsettled if we do everything different today. Let them sleep until muster. Let them have long enough time to eat and go to the latrines and form up into order. We want the Ogres to be on our heels, mad with the scent of victory. We can spare a few hours now.”
The Marshals saluted, taking it as a dismissal. He knew that some of them didn’t like him or his methods. They had lived during a time when Illyria won every battle, and their pride had grown accustomed to it. War meant riding out and crushing the barbarians with the ease of a midday stroll. They didn’t like retreating and plotting and using sneaky ambushes and strategies. War was some sort of honorable duel to them, where everything should be fair and even. Where courage should determine the victor, not base trickery. The Goddess save the world from leaders who thought war should be fair. If Marcellus had his way, every fight would be between men unarmed and tied up against a dozen Legions. If Marcellus had his way, there wouldn’t even be a war, much less one that posed a risk to the Republic. But it couldn’t be helped. Illyria was the land of plenty, and to the barbarians looking in, it was a ripe fruit for the picking. He had to teach them that this fruit had thorns. That trying to pluck it would result in nothing but a bleeding hand. It was the only language they understood, the flash of sword on shield. It was the only language they shared. Mahara’s gift to the world.
“You always get that gloomy face before a battle.” His son noted, strolling over as he juggled a leg of mutton and wheat biscuits. “It’s like you see something no one else does. Disaster. You always see disaster. You look at the Legion and the only thing you can see is some catastrophe that will wipe it out. Some mistake you’ll make or some unexpected trick of the enemy. They’re Ogres, father.”
Marcellus gathered back his thoughts to look at his son. Publius had the fair northern hair of his mother. His blue eyes seemed to collect all the light from the foggy morning and burst back into the world with glee. The son had the fair skin of a lass. Not a scar on the boy, and clean-shaven. If they dressed him up as a girl none could have told the difference. But only a boy had that fierce excitement of a first battle. Marcellus had known that feeling. The wish to do some incredibly heroic feat and win the acclamation of the entire army. His first battle had been one of the most dangerous in his life, because of that stupidity. He would not let Publius make that same mistake.
“You’ll be reporting to Fabius today, son.” Marcellus said. “He will give you instructions from there.”
The coldness of his voice struck Publius like a slap. “Of course, father.” He almost saluted before he remembered that his hands were full of biscuits. Publius would be angry with him. He could already imagine exactly what he would say: “What, father, you will disgrace me so? Will you disgrace yourself, when the legion sees how far you trust your own son?” Perhaps when he was younger those arguments would have reached him. But now he understood that some things were more important than disgrace. It didn’t matter what the legion thought, or what shame Publius would feel. Because he would be alive. He wouldn’t have to go back to Lydra and tell her that her son had died. That he had killed their son, before he ever had a chance to live. That was the only thing that mattered. Publius would understand things after the first battle that no amount of training can teach a soldier. Once he survived this battle, Marcellus could trust him to exercise caution and reserve. Only after one’s first battle does one realize that he could die—unless he’s already dead. Marcellus couldn’t trust Publius in battle until he learned that lesson. He had to understand. If Publius hated him after this, Marcellus would hate himself. He had to understand.
The trumpet calls of muster bleared throughout the camp. Marcellus rolled up his maps and placed them reverently back into their case. These maps were the essence of war. Choose the ground of the battle, and the battle is won. The truth of that was reflected by the fact that Marcellus was the Consul of Illyria. One of the most respected men in the entire Republic. And the successor singled out by Maximus on his deathbed. All because of these maps. He slid the mapcase into the pouch beside his belt, and went to get breakfast.
His knife made quick work of the biscuits and mutton, carefully inserting the roasted meat into the inviting buns. Some people ate them separately, but Marcellus always felt the two together was a meal, and apart they were only rations. He didn’t understand the difference, but it was there. And so he ate them together.
“Will the Eagle banner fly today?” A soldier asked.
“Will the Sunhand see blood?”
“Will Illyria witness our triumph today?”
Marcellus looked at the soldiers with their eager attentiveness upon their Consul. They trusted in him as only years of campaigning and victories could earn. They had retreated for ten days with no complaints, every evening making a new fortification before settling down to sleep, and demolishing it every morning before they began their march. He loved the tenth Legion for that. “Legionnaires!” Marcellus shouted to quiet their questions. “Today will be the last day of the Suweii under the sun!”
And the entire legion broke out into frenzied cheers. Because whenever their Consul had promised victory, it had been true. They believed in him. They believed they would win no matter what the circumstances if only he said they could. That was why they were willing to do whatever he asked of them. Because they knew it was so that their Consul could give them this triumph each and every time. In the midst of their cheers the legion formed into the line of march, scouts and pickets fanning out into the countryside, and in rapid efficiency their sleeping camp became a Legion on the move: the most terrifying military power on earth.
Fabius spurred his horse forward to ride beside Marcellus. The two horses snorted warnings to each other, nipping at each other’s necks. They seemed to know that the two leaders of the legion were riding them, and fought for preeminence accordingly. Marcellus jerked Vale’s reins hard and the horse took two skittish steps sideways before settling back down.
Fabius pulled on his mustache. “It’s not like you, to fight far from the Eagle.”
His dream flashed through his mind as more a feeling of dread than any coherent image. “I trust you.”
Fabius nodded, as if that were taken for granted. “I can promise you half an hour. But the Legion doesn’t have the same fervor with me. They see me as the solid and wise counselor, the one who will get the legions out of trouble. Not as their leader in battle. I can’t bellow warcries and fire up the legionnaires. It won’t be the same legion without you.” They both knew the danger wasn’t in the actual battle. Trapped against the canyon walls, however, the Legion would be torn to shreds the moment they broke into rout. Amelia’s Gorge promised the total destruction of whichever army that broke within its maw. This battle would be one of courage, in the end. Whether the Legion had enough faith in Marcellus’ daring counterattack to hold their ranks amidst the huge Ogres with their incredible numbers and chilling screams would mean the difference between total victory or total defeat. And Fabius could only promise that kind of courage to stand for thirty minutes under his command.
“I can’t be in both places!” Marcellus said. “And they need me in the forest just as much. Without my lead, they’ll either come too early or too late. Or else they’ll get lost and not turn out in the right place. A regiment without a banner or the Consul is nothing but a mob.”
Fabius snorted. “There are a lot of gray veterans behind us who would have a thing or two to say about that.”
“Let them. We’re pretty gray ourselves.” Marcellus challenged.
“Do you remember when Maximus led us against the Lucian battlements?”
Marcellus nodded. “A long time ago.”
“You hated it. You were like a child deprived of his favorite toy. ‘There’s no strategy to scaling rocks!’”
“It took Maximus two years to conquer a single city. Attacking fortifications is the most pointless and unequal battle known to man. In sieges the attacker usually starves before the defender. It ties down a huge number of assaulters with a tiny number of defenders. Storming the city means fighting on ground of their choice. And you’re more likely to starve the women and children than the men. I’ll never attack walls. If the Senate asks me to, I’ll resign.”
Fabius nodded. “It’s just that. There are a lot of gray men who’ve scaled too many rocks and marched too many miles. They’ll stay the course, for their love of you and Illyria. But it has to end. Some of these men haven’t seen their wives in five years. They don’t even know if they have wives anymore.”
“I’m not Maximus.” Marcellus said. “I’m not searching for new wars to prove myself with. My father died fighting the Ogres. I’ve been fighting them all my life. Now my son is fighting the Ogres. It has to end somewhere.”
Fabius looked at the horizon, looking backwards in time. “He was a great man. All he had to do was stand there, and a nimbus of power emanated from him. His whole life he searched for a challenge, for his match. But he couldn’t. No one stood a chance against him. He just won and won all his life.”
Marcellus nodded. “We had a little to do with that.”
Fabius shook his head. “He made us people who could help him. He saw the potential and he cultivated it. Any achievement we have is a part of his.”
“Tributaries flowing irresistibly into the greater river. The greater our size, the greater the river’s.” Marcellus said.
“That was Maximus.” Fabius said. “Like lodestone. He just has a pull on the world around him. The whole world seemed to lean towards him. As if listening for the next word that would come out of his mouth.”
“He owned the entire age. You talk about the last fifty years and his is the only name in history. That’s more a mark of shame than of pride, though. There is room for more than one person in this world. Illyria should be more than one person. It has to be, if we want to remain Illyria.”
“I’ll hold you to that.” Fabius answered gravely. “Let’s make this the last fight. Don’t stretch the campaign with the Ogres into eternity. Let’s just win this war and go home.” Marcellus looked at Fabius, really looked at him, for the first time that day. Silver hair was competing with his dark brown, and his mustaches were sprinkled with salt. Crowfeet stamped across the edges of his eyes, and lines of worry and concentration etched themselves around his mouth. It was a face that had seen more battles than the Goddess could count, a face that could count how many times it had ever smiled. Marcellus enjoyed being Consul. He loved his Legion and he loved winning. But Fabius was only here to get the job done. He fought because he knew there was no one else who could replace him. He put Illyria before himself, with only the quiet solace of knowing it was worth it. If Marcellus went on fighting wars, if he used the dedication of good men to Illyria as fuel for the fire of his own glory, he would be nothing less than Mahara’s dog. Using the virtue of others as the very chains to enslave them was the greatest evil Marcellus could imagine.
“The last fight then.” Marcellus promised. The two clasped wrists, and Fabius dipped back to rejoin the Eagle. Marcellus tried to gauge the distance between the Legion and the barbarians by the sun. He couldn’t tell. He might have cut this one too close. He pulled his mapcase from his pouch, unfurling the map in his lap. The mountains he’d sighted this morning loomed a bit closer, and now he judged the angles from the two to plot the distance to the gorge. Riding on his horse with a map in his lap was hardly the best of circumstances for triangulation, but it couldn’t be helped. The legion had to look as though it were on the run. It couldn’t wait for him to stop and calculate at his leisure.
“Summon the marshals of the first through fifth detachments.” He ordered his attendant. He watched the sun with a worried glance until the marshals had made their way forward.
“Consul?” The young marshal asked.
Marcellus dismounted, rolling out his map onto the ground. “Gather round, sirs.” He motioned, and the marshals crouched into a circle around him. Marcellus grabbed a nearby twig. “According to my reckoning, we’ll be in the gorge in thirty minutes.” He pointed at the point he’d triangulated. “With the barbarians hot on our heels.”
The marshals gave a worried murmur. He’d cut it too close, this morning.
“Now as soon as we enter this forest, I want you to break off from the legion and cut like so.” He drew a diagonal line at 45 degrees to the right and left of the gorge. “It is necessary that the Ogres have enough berth to go straight for the gorge.” He ordered emphatically. “Do you understand? Your detachments are to hide like rabbits. You’re to burrow like mice, or the Ogres will destroy us piecemeal and after us Illyria. No heroics. No noise. Nothing.”
The marshals nodded gravely.
“Now I want a line of trumpeters to connect our two regiments. The moment I give the signal, the trumpets will resound across the forest. We have to attack together. Without our full weight they’ll tear us apart. There must be no hesitation. Regardless of the way things look from your perspective, you hear the trumpet and you charge. Do you understand?”
The marshals murmured assent.
“Good.” Marcellus stated with finality, rolling up his map. “Now get back to your columns and put everything in order. I’m counting on you.” He slipped the map back into its case and into his pouch, wincing as he stood from the sudden change in position. Old wounds protested in the cold. It was just a part of life. Soon enough his horse took him into the woods, and he had nothing left to do but wait. The tenth legion marched blithely ahead, the two banners waving under the trees to call as much attention to itself as possible. Soon enough, that legion would about face in the gorge, trapped like badgers, and the Ogres wouldn’t be able to tell their numbers. Soon enough his charge would break them from behind. All his planning was over. Now it was just time to wait for them to reach fruition.
Dismounting from his horse, Marcellus signaled his detachment to hug the ground. Carefully taking out his spyglass, he lay on the ground with his elbows propping up his chest. Before an hour had passed, the blue-painted Ogres rushed in pursuit. He tried to count their numbers, but they came too fast and with too little order to form any reliable count. They covered the ground like ants, crashing through the forest without a care for anything around them or behind. They knew the legion was on the run, that they had finally caught up to the cowards. They knew they had nothing to fear. Marcellus counted thousands. Tens of thousands. Could Fabius hold for thirty minutes? He had to wait for all of them to become fully engaged in the gorge. Fabius had to hold.
Five minutes passed. Ten minutes. Where were the scouts? A centurion behind him muttered something under his breath. Marcellus turned on him sharply, standing at his full height above the crouching detachment. For some reason a thing as simple as height made all the difference. “What did you say, centurion?”
The centurion gulped. “It was nothing, sir.”
Marcellus smiled toothily. “Something like this: ‘An ill omen, to be fighting under no banner.’”
“Just idle talk, sir.” The centurion plead.
First my dream, now this. Could they be right? Is this auspicious? Did I leave some vital part out of my plan? Have I made a mistake and angered the Goddess? No. My plan is perfect. This battle will be perfect. All the omens be damned. Marcellus smiled wider. “No, Centurion, I believe you’re right!”
The detachment almost let out a gasp of startlement.
“Why, just this morning when I went to the latrines, my piss was green!” Marcellus shouted. And the men laughed in shock. “And when I looked up at the sun, why it had risen in the West and was traveling merrily eastwards!” The legion laughed even more, getting into the spirit of it. The centurion had a bemused look of having escaped the executioner’s ax. But Marcellus hadn’t done it for him. Chewing him up would only seek to replace one fear with another. It would mean ‘the fight is scary, but I’m terrifying, so charge the enemy so as to run away from me.’ That was not good enough. These men were too proud to fight like the slaves of Leucadia. They fought out of love, not fear. They fought out of pride, rather than out of cowardice. Lacerating the Centurion would have thrown all of that upside down. The best way to conquer fear is to belittle it. If the Legion finds their fear something laughable, then they’ll discard it as not befitting their dignity. This way, I use their pride. I don’t tear it down. It’s better this way.
“Consul sir!” A scout shouted at a voice barely below hysteria.
Marcellus signaled the legion to rise and arm. Thank the Goddess, there was still time. “Report!”
The scout saluted fist to chest. “Sir, the barbarians are pressing them hard. There’s hardly enough room for them to swing their weapons, there are so many. But there’s more!” He paused to take a breath. Marcellus and the whole Legion stood transfixed. “Sir, their women and children are watching the battle from within the Gorge! It is impossible to reach the Ogres!”
Marcellus reeled. How could they! How could even Ogres be so stupid! The thoughts raced through his head in ever-increasing fury. The whole Suweii tribe must be extinguished. I can hold for thirty minutes. I swear this will be our last fight. The story of this fight will protect Illyria for the next ten generations. Failure here will mean the Ogres pouring in like an avalanche. The thoughts were like nails being driven into the coffin that was entombing his soul. If he gave this order, the women and children would not be able to escape the fray. If he didn’t give this order, Fabius and the tenth Legion would be destroyed, followed shortly by the rest of Illyria.
Why hadn’t I listened to Her? Why had I mocked her omens? She was practically screaming at me not to do this! How many innocents will die from my impiety? The entire legion awaited in silence. “Attendant,” Marcellus had to stop and try to unclog the knot in his throat. “Attendant, sound the attack.”
“Sir?” The attendant asked, eyes widening.
“I’ll take full responsibility!” Marcellus roared, turning on his attendant with fury. “Now SOUND THE ATTACK!”
The attendant nodded, shakingly lifting the trumpet to his lips. The horn pealed through the forest, instantly being caught and copied by a hundred more, until the whole forest was one blast of sound. Fifteen minutes had passed. The legion boiled out of the forest with the knowledge of their comrades’ distress. The brazen arms of thousands of well disciplined legionnaires following the Ogres mad rush only minutes before. Marcellus brought up the rear, exhorting the detachment to keep rank and order, to press without hesitation, to forget the horrible words of the cursed scout who had turned to rubble all his carefully laid out plans.
In the din of the battle, all the Ogres shouting at the top of their lungs and trying to push forward in the narrow confines of the gorge, the trumpets never had a chance of being heard. The Ogres were so tightly packed that they couldn’t even swing their weapons for fear of hitting each other. The women and children watched with terror as the Legion trampled through them to reach the foe. Their cries and screams of warning equally drowned out by the clash of steel. The Ogres couldn’t even tell they were under attack when their hindmost ranks started getting spitted from behind. To the few who did notice and tried to turn about the Legion riddled with javelins, silencing anyone who seemed to have any bit of initiative or intelligence. The battle was over before it began. Eventually the rush of thousands caught the attention of the Ogres, but by then it was too late to mount any defense. Behind them and ahead of them, the disciplined shield walls and darting bronze swords began to create devastating holes in their line. Ogres turned about in panic, not knowing whether to fight those to the fore or rear. Ogres began pushing from the middle to reach the edges to reach the fight, and from the edges towards the safety of the middle. Barbarians began to trample each other, or even fight amongst themselves for the chance of escape. The battle became a rout, save for a few last pockets of resistance. Marcellus watched it all from the rear, shouting for the Legion to press on. Until his eyes caught upon a circle of blue-painted boys, and his voice left him.
The lads turned to and fro, eyes quivering in terror from the jeers and taunts of the victorious Legion. Like fawns separated from their mother by racing wolves. They could not have been older than eighteen, their smooth cheeks and slender builds in total contrast to the wild and brutal men around them. Eyes flitted between them, looks of anguished love for the companions left and right to them. It looked as though they wished to cast down their arms, to weep and plead for the mercy they could not hope to find, but with each terrified look to another, hands reclenched around spears, shields half-lowered came back to their guard. Marcellus watched, frozen in time, and something quivered inside his breast and snapped. The slaughter was everywhere, fleeing men trampled under from either side, fleeing men pushing and striking each other for the supposed safety of the other side, wives and children throwing themselves upon their own swords, hanging themselves from the trees, cursing and savaging their own fleeing warriors who had escaped the Lyrian jaw. Jubilant cries rose from all sides, the rush of triumph and vengeance for those armies crushed before them. All was noise and panic and death. But Marcellus could only see this one band, this one last vestige of resistance surrounded on all sides. His eyes could only see those boys, some no older than his youngest son, and tears burned silently down dust and sweat stained cheeks. With howling eagerness, Lyrians crashed down from all sides, and the children vanished from his sight.
Two hours later, the army emerged in a daze. The fumes of death chokingly strong, the bodies packed so close that it was impossible to take a step without walking on top of them. The earth was caked with blood and flies, and the Tenth Legion emerged from it as from some mythical doomsday. Their eyes were glued open with horror, so that nothing they saw registered to dull and worn out brains. Marcellus was careful to avoid the Sunhand banner. He had fought enough battles today. That one could wait for tomorrow. If he had his way, it could wait a year. Or two.
“Your report?” He asked, his voice completely dead.
“We count forty thousand dead.” The attendant answered in a whisper.
The number was too large to have any meaning. Forty thousand men simply could not die in a single day. It was impossible. He could not have killed that many men. Don’t fool yourself. Not ‘men’. Women and children. Forty thousand men, women, and children. The entire Suweii tribe. Just as you wanted. Just like you prayed for.
“And ours?” He answered in the same dull tone.
The attendant gulped with an air of apology. “Five.”
That night the Legion made as much distance as possible from Amelia’s Gorge. There was no attempt to bury the dead. Such a burial would create another mountain, and no one wanted to remain in that cursed charnel heap any longer than necessary. Ghosts might wish to wreak vengeance upon them. Or the humors of the air released by all the blood and flies might infect the legion with all manner of ailments. Nor did they attempt to take spoils from the dead. The Ogres were so poor there was nothing left to take. Their huge, tall bodies were their only possessions; much good it had done them in the end. The evening meal was passed around with an unusual amount of clamor and argument. The bonfires the centuries gathered around were a little larger and brighter than normal. Noise and bright fires, they hoped, would scare the spirits away. And remind them that they were still alive.
Once Marcellus made sure the evening stockade was well under way, he made for his own tent to write a report. He passed under the Eagle and the Sunhand with a sigh of relief, and then stopped dead upon entering his tent.
“Father.” Publius saluted, fist to chest. Marcellus looked at the oil lamp and his desk and his supper and his cot that Bernadine had laid out for him. That’s all he wanted to do now. To write his report, eat, and go to sleep. Why did it always have to be more complicated?
“Father,” Publius insisted. “Why did you give me the banner? Why was it my duty to be the last man standing, the duty of the entire legion to protect me? Of all the people in this entire Legion, why did it have to be me? You knew how much I wanted this fight, and instead you made me hide in the safest place possible like some child!”
Marcellus wiped his forehead with a grimy hand. “What is it you want from me?” He asked with resigned exhaustion.
“I just don’t understand, Father. I try so hard to make you proud, to fight like you do. To show the Legion what kind of son you have. And you disgrace me. You disgrace yourself, and for what?”
Sheole, Sheole. This is your gift, isn’t it? The one that steals sons from fathers, daughters from mothers, husbands from wives. I hate you most of all. “Publius, today I hope you learned something about war. It was something you had to learn, before you could ever fight like I do. Because I fight to live, and you fight so that you’ll be the first and bravest to die.”
“A lie!” Publius shouted. “You were never afraid! When you held your shield over Maximus’ fallen body, the blows of ten men driving you to the ground, you weren’t afraid to die! By the Goddess, father, just today you have won the greatest victory our Republic has ever known, and you—“
“Not a victory.” Marcellus interrupted quietly. “It wasn’t that.”
Publius fell to his knees, looking upwards at his father with a pleading look. “I love you and admire you so much. Why can’t you find a place in your heart, just a tenth part of what I feel for you, for me? Why can’t you trust me as much as you trust every other man in this legion, your own son? Why can’t you find anything good in me at all? Why am I such a failure?” His whole body shook with emotion
Marcellus watched his son with that same dead look as before. It hurt too much to register anymore. “Today you carried the banner, the honor, of our family. You faced the headlong rush of ten thousand warriors and held them for twenty minutes alone. And your courage and faith in me inspired the whole tenth Legion to stand. This I learned straight from Fabius’ mouth. Today you have every reason to be proud. You have failed no one. Not yourself, not me, and most of all not Illyria.” Publius dared to look his father in the eyes.
“Now stand up. It is shameful for a son to beg anything from his father that I would not already give. You must see to the night’s watch. And I must tell the City of our victory.”
Publius nodded grudgingly. “Do you really think anyone would attack us tonight?”
Marcellus sighed. “Of course not. But if I don’t build the stockade even once, then the Legion will find reasons not to build one for the rest of eternity. I can never stray from discipline, however stupid, and hope to keep all these men alive and returning to their families.”
“Of course, father.” Publius nodded. As if to say, ‘Of course everything you do is right and wise. I should never have thought to question your judgment.’ Marcellus remembered to thank Illyria for blessing him with this son. If Illyria would ever listen to him again. Illyria, if any vengeance must be had, let it fall on me. Curse not this loyal Legion for what they did. It was by my hand. It was my impiety and my command. All the blood is mine, all the retribution be mine as well. I beg this of you, for all the years I’ve served. This is my only boon for all those years.
“Sir?” Bernadine touched him lightly on the arm. “Are you feeling well?” Marcellus hadn’t even noticed when Publius had left the room. He blinked, trying to remember what he was going to do. A report. He still had to write a report.
“I’m just tired, Bernadine. You can sleep if you like. I’ll be ready in a bit.”
“I’ll stay up a while, if you don’t mind.” He replied, settling into his chair with his supper. He had waited to eat until after Marcellus. It was little things like that that Marcellus loved him for. He pulled up his chair and leaned over his desk, carefully dipping his goose quill into the ink. Marcellus fondly remembered the childhood tales of how the geese once saved the City from conquest by fierce barbarians. There was a holiday of thanksgiving for the geese every year, where the girls dressed up in white and the boys wore horrifying masks, and the tale was reenacted every year to show Illyria that they had never forgotten her protection in all those years. When was the last time he had been home for that day? When was the last time he had seen Marcus playfully sneaking up the cliff walls, each step an exaggerated motion of stealth and malice? The last time he had seen Jania gleaming like snow, playing the flute like the trumpet-cry of the geese, warning all the men: ‘To arms!’ ‘To arms!’ A blot of ink dripped from the quill onto the parchment, ruining the whole sheet. Marcellus sighed and crumpled up the paper, trying to remember again what he was supposed to be doing. Oh yes, a report.
He dipped his quill again, and placed it over the paper. His hand began to shake, small tremors traveling up his arm. He pushed the quill towards the paper, but his hand began to shake even more. By the time the quill hovered less than an inch from the parchment, his hand was shaking so violently no amount of will could get his hand to approach any closer. He watched with wonder his hand clutched around that quill moving with a will of its own. He simply could not reach the paper. With a curse he threw down the quill and grabbed his wrist massagingly with his other hand.
“Bernadine, could you please fetch an attendant?” He threw himself back against his chair, looking blankly at the roof of his tent. It must be his nerves. He was just too tired. “Tell him I am indisposed. Tell him he will have to give the report. Take my seal. That should be enough.”
Bernadine nodded tactfully, journeying into the cold night without complaint. Marcellus yawned again, dousing the light of his lamp. Then he thought Bernadine might have needed that light to find his way back. But it was too late. He was too tired to do anything right. Marcellus crawled into his blankets and fell asleep. He did not notice when his slave made it back.
Marcellus relaxed in his bath. Old wounds throbbing from the cold were heated and cajoled into a feeling of painlessness. He was weightless, the only sensation in his body that of well-being. It was the first time he could remember in years that this body hadn’t been aching about something. He gave a contented sigh and immersed himself to his nose in the great bowl of steaming water. High above him was a blue sky that showed no sign of storm, the great mountains set all around him to form a giant bowl for his bath. A natural hot spring? A heated lake this far north? Marcellus shook his head, not wanting to think anymore. It was enough to just feel. His muscles grew lax and his hair streamed out behind him. He would have to show Lydra this when he got back to the City. His own private retreat. They could leave the kids with the slaves, and come up here for a summer and remember how being young felt. He smiled in anticipation of that, imagining months of solitude together with the northern beauty who still brought all eyes of a crowd to rest on her. The only competition Lydra’s exotic complexion faced was that of her own daughter’s. Their beautiful Jania. Their perfect snowy Jania. How he missed seeing her.
But there was something wrong. The water was cooling, the steam drifting away. And something else. It was becoming stickier, congealing around his body and coating his hair. The steam finally left the lake entirely bare to his eyes. A lake of blood. Marcellus’ eyes dilated in horrified recognition. He was swimming in a lake of blood! The mountains took on the familiar shape of Amelia’s Gorge, laughing at him with malicious glee. He felt a brush of something icy-cold on his ankle, and he screamed, pulling free. He looked to the rims of the bowl with mounting comprehension. It was a bowl of flesh. A carefully crafted bowl of human corpses. All the people he’d killed. He tried to swim free, but the blood had become so solid and sluggish that he couldn’t move through it. And beneath him, slowly inching towards him, were a group of young boys with blue eyes gaping at him like fish, trying to pull him under, trying to grab his ankles, trying to—
Marcellus woke, trembling in fear. He didn’t move for a minute, sweat crawling on his body and his breath slowly coming back under control. He didn’t want to move, for fear he was still in his dream. He didn’t want to put reality to the test by throwing off his blankets.
“Sir?” A sleepy whisper came from nearby. “Are you awake?” And Marcellus was flooded with relief. He was awake. And Bernadine was here. Someone else was here who was still alive.
“Another nightmare?” Bernadine soothed, lighting a candle to bring another sense of safety to his master. Nothing like fire could ease the human heart. Marcellus gazed at the candle and his slave thankfully, like a child to his mother. Fire. Necia’s gift. Blessed Necia. “You simply must visit the temple of Illyria when we get home.” Bernadine said. “This is the work of vengeful spirits. Illyria will chase them from you. Just don’t you worry. It’s only a day now. By tonight you’ll be sleeping back in your home with your family under the protection of Scamander’s gates.”
Marcellus nodded, still shaking. His sweat felt too much like blood. He had to wash it off. He had to wash and wash until he couldn’t even remember how it felt. Bernadine didn’t know that the nightmares came from Illyria. That he had begged for her to punish him and him alone for his impiety. That this was her boon to him. That his penance and suffering would go on regardless if he was in the City. Until she thought it was enough. Marcellus didn’t dare pray for it to end. He had made a deal with her. So long as he honoured it, so would she. His legion would suffer no evil. He had to be strong enough to protect them. Just as he was smart enough to protect them from Ogres, now he must be strong enough to protect them from the retribution of the Goddess. That was what Consul’s were meant to do.
He left the tent to dunk himself in the river nearby. It wasn’t dawn yet, but close enough to make no difference. The water would be cold, even as far south as they were. But that was fine. Cold water to wash away the hot blood. The symmetry of it brought a sort of peace to his mind. The legion, even a day out from the City, sat encamped within a ring of dirt and a ditch. The sentries might have been a little relaxed, but he could understand. They were all happy to be home. The wars were over. Marcellus and the entire legion felt sure that no Ogre would dare cross their borders after their victory. They would have to be courageous beyond the point of insanity. His sins had bought Illyria their first peace in fifty years. The first real lasting peace since Maximus had begun his conquests. That was worth one soul. Just one soul to save the lives of millions, now and to come. That had to be a fair exchange. He would not begrudge the Goddess that. He plunged himself into the river, staying in it as long as possible before his extremities began to go numb with the cold. His scars at first made him wince, but the icy cold seemed to take the pain away from them as effectively as heat. When he emerged, a messenger had found him who seemed as though he’d walked the whole circuit of the stockade without success.
“Consul sir!” The messenger saluted. “I bring word from the City!” He made his way down the riverbank and handed over his message tube. Marcellus took the time to dress himself again, the cold having cleared away his head and leaving his flesh tingling in a nice way.
Marcellus looked over the message, then read it again. He handed it back to the messenger carelessly. “What does it say?” The messenger asked, rolling the parchment back up. “If I may ask.” He added after a moment.
“The Senate greets the tenth Legion with gladness for Illyria’s providence and so on.” Marcellus answered. He hated how many words cityfolk used. Words seemed to flow out of their mouths like sewage in a never-ending cascade. One could sift through it for hours and not find one solid meaningful comment among them. Not like with the Legion. Every word clean and precise and sharp as a sword. He had forgotten how much he hated being back in the city with its crowds.
“But. . .are they serious?” The messenger gaped in wonder. “No Triumph? No procession? After the greatest victory this Republic has seen, not one word in commendation?”
Marcellus shook his head. “It’s just as well. I wouldn’t have accepted a Triumph had they given me one. That battle should be forgotten as soon as possible. And Illyria should never have it cheered. Best that the City never even knows of it. At least then they won’t share its taint.”
The messenger seemed not to have even heard the Consul. “They’re jealous! The Senate is jealous of your accomplishments and they’re stealing our Triumph. I can’t believe they have the gall to greet you like. . . like. . .some departed cousin from the countryside!”
“Leave off.” Marcellus said. This time with an air of command that lent it finality. He took a deep breath of the air, loving the scent of the sea and all the other smells of the south. “We’re home. That’s all that matters. Home with our families after all these years.”
“Of course, sir.” The messenger answered deferentially. He was too young to know what ‘all these years’ meant. But at least he was wise enough not to show that. Marcellus didn’t feel like saying anything else for a while. There would be words enough in the City. Enough and more. Hopefully he could collect his family as quickly as possible and settle off onto his farm. Let the curse be his and his alone. He would not bring it to the City, where it could fall on the heads of so many. He wanted to hang up his weapons and farm for the rest of his years. The Senate would not be jealous or fearful of him then. For once in his life he wouldn’t have to be anyone’s enemy. He wouldn’t have to be fighting anyone.
It was not a Triumph, so the tenth Legion did not enter armed. Nor did the banners fly, as the legion had been disbanded before they entered Scamander’s gates. But everyone understood what was happening, and the streets were still lined with citizens of all ages cheering on their returned heroes. Young girls presented all the centurions and marshals with garlands of flowers, because they were not allowed to present them with laurel crowns. They kissed the men, young and old alike, on the cheek and ran off before the men could give any reaction. The legion still paraded in perfect ranks, though they were only citizens on a stroll. Flowers rained from the rooftops and windows. Not a soul in the city could have avoided the sound of their elation. The one person they all expected to find, the one person the Senate feared most would appear, was not seen. Marcellus had snuck in secretly that night, dressed as a private citizen in full accordance to the Senate’s decree. He watched his Legion with pride. It hadn’t been their fault. They had fought with courage and faith. They deserved this Triumph, after so many years of the cold, long marches and short rations. He alone could not show his face to Scamander’s citizens. So he watched from the crowd, until Fabius ended the parade at the feet of the Assembly.
In a dead silence, the crowd awaited the exchange between the marshal and the Senate. Not many people understood why this moment was so tense. They only had a strange feeling that today was dangerous. That a great clash of powers was happening, a danger to the entire Republic. Which made no sense, because the whole point of the Triumph is that the danger had finally been put to rest. Marcellus understood the danger. Maximus had wielded such authority that the Senate had not dared to defy his will. The people had sided with Maximus, though they did not realize they had. If Maximus had wanted to rule instead of to conquer. . . .The Senate could not be sure of Marcellus’ allegiance, as Maximus’ appointed heir. Had Maximus intended for Marcellus to take the crown he had denied himself? Did Marcellus intend to use this Triumph to place himself as something beyond the law? Marcellus shook his head regretfully. Maximus had gone too far. Sometimes a person could be too great for his time. But never, not once, had he or anyone else plotted against the Republic. Maximus was too possessed by his Vision to let anything stand in his way. He had not intended to disobey the Senate. Marcellus believed that to his core. His love for Maximus and his love for the Republic were both valid. They had to be, or else he would consign himself to the crucifix as a traitor to the State this very day. His soul Illyria could claim, but his honor and his pride remained. It was the last thing he held. The last worth his life had. Any death was better than losing the value of his life.
“The Senate greets you in the name of all Illyria.” The Senator emphasized. “You are welcome back as citizens of our city. As heroes.” Not legionnaires.
Fabius bowed gracefully. “And we return to Scamander as fathers, husbands, and sons. As citizens of our great Republic, and as worshippers of our great Goddess. Our loyalty has always been and will always be to Illyria.” Marcellus and Fabius had worked that speech out days before they had even seen Scamander’s walls.
After a long hush, the city broke out into redoubled jubilation. Whatever danger they had sensed, it was now past. Some fear that played at the corner of their eyes had suddenly vanished, and the wave of relief filled the entire crowd with euphoria. Marcellus marveled at how the entire world could have changed had Fabius said something else. How one single decision could shake the pillars of heaven and the depths of hell. No one should have that kind of power. No one person should ever have the power to change the world. It is usurping the role of the Gods. Marcellus left the crowd, the only person wrapped in a gloomy silence, and headed back for home. The empty and silent cobblestone streets felt like the fitting homage Scamander paid to its greatest Consul.
Lydra laughed in response, the entire family gathered in couches around the dinner table. It was the first time they had all been together in three years. She had counted every day.
“But how could the city have been so prepared? How could they have found all those flowers in just a day before the Legion arrived?” Marcellus asked in bemusement.
“We knew the very same day you fought, Papa.” Marcus piped up enthusiastically. “I calculated it back, and it matches the very same day you had the battle!”
“Calculated what?” Marcellus asked. The boy was so happy to say the words that he’d left them bereft of meaning.
“The voice!” He exclaimed. “A voice came from the sky, like the ringing of a great bell. The whole city heard it. It said that we didn’t have to worry anymore because the Legion had won a great victory and soon you’d all come home. On the very same day you won!” He seemed anxious to repeat that, to make sure he understood.
Marcellus looked at Lydra, who nodded in affirmation. Whether or not it was true, Marcellus would not venture to guess. But he believed it was true, and why steal away a child’s belief in miracles, if there was even the slightest possibility that they were real? Marcellus gave Marcus a smile of approval. “Well that will be something remarkable for all the histories.” Marcus laughed and agreed.
“Marcus has been studying Carian, father.” Jania said supportively. “He’s going to be a poet. Show father your poem, Marcus!”
Marcus blushed, trying to sink under the table. Soon the entire family was shouting at him to recite his poem, and Marcus gave in, striking a pose worthy of a bard.
“Ahem.” He coughed, bringing silence to his crowd of four.
“Three Goddesses watch at Heaven’s door.
First came Datia, with air to breathe and water to drink.
Next came Necia, with earth to hold and fire to rule.
Last came Illyria, to seed the world with life.”
Marcus paused for dramatic effect.
“Three Demons prowl at Hell’s gate.
First came Zakine, with suffering and death.
Next came Sheole, to rend the human soul.
Last came Mahara, with greed and war.”
Marcus paused again, the audience hanging on his every breath.
“Who shall we embrace? Whose gifts do we enjoy?
The treasures of life and of death, how much we love them twain!
But I? I will choose the songs of death’s bane.”
Lydra and Jania, who had heard it all before, gave hearty cheer. Publius voiced his approval with the greatest zeal. Marcellus could only sit dumbstruck, wonder in his eyes. Where did the son I left behind go? Where was that mischievous Marcus? That little boy he had hugged and dandled on his knee? Everyone looked at Marcellus in expectation, Marcus most of all.
“Is this what the Carians teach you?” Marcellus finally asked.
“Mm.” Marcus nodded, smiling hopefully.
“Then Caria must know a lot.” Marcellus remarked. And Marcus screamed with glee. In a moment the boy was in his arms, and all the years slipped away and he was the son Marcellus had always loved and known.
“You’ll let me join the Academy?” He begged. “You’ll let me go to Caria?”
Marcellus laughed. “Isn’t that a little early to be asking?”
Marcus gave a little frown. “I want to know now, in case you leave for good next time.” Marcellus looked in shock into his son’s eyes. He didn’t mean it. He didn’t mean it to hurt.
“I won’t leave again.” Marcellus said. Stroking his son’s hair and holding him tight. “The war is over. I won’t have to leave you ever again.”
And Marcus nodded in understanding. Because Father never lied. When he said something, you could believe him because it was true. Marcus tried to bite back a tear.
Marcellus touched the drop on his cheek tenderly. “But why do you cry?”
Marcus sniffed. “I know it’s stupid,” he answered. “But I’m just so happy they won’t stop.”
After that Marcellus decided he would never fight again.
Lydra lay in bed, idly tracing the scar that ran across her husband’s breast. The contours of their bodies had slid into one another with such natural ease that any doubts of unfaithfulness melted away. They lay together as two parts of a whole, as if they’d been together only last night and not three years ago. She wasn’t really aware of the world around her, but rather floating in a cloud of happiness that excluded anything else. Nothing mattered anymore, because everything was exactly as it should be.
“No new scars.” She mused.
Marcellus lay still, his eyes gazing at the ceiling or perhaps something further off. “No. For Publius or me. I brought us back safe.” Lydra knew how much satisfaction he got out of being able to say those words to her. And how much she got to hear them.
“Tell me how you got this one.” She said, her fingertips tracing the long line across his breast and waist.
“You know how I got it.” He answered, a slight trembling in his body of laughter that she instantly felt. It was like they were communicating in a truer way than words, when they slept together.
“Tell me again. I like it when you tell me.”
“Maximus heard of an especially fierce Ogre tribe, the Anembrones, and decided if he could crush them all the Ogres who still thought to resist us would surrender out of fear. Consuls have been arguing about it since the beginning of time—does military strategy involve striking at the strongest or the weakest point in the enemy line? You’d think they could figure it out by now, but both strategies seem to work just as well. Of course Maximus struck the strongest, he always went after the strongest and fiercest battles he could find. That was his nature. I was just a legionnaire then, but I decided that night to find the Anembrone camp and steal all their horses. Their war leaders would ride these massive horses and look like some Giants from the dawntime, and I figured that without those horses the Ogres wouldn’t be quite so brave or fearsome.” Marcellus looked at the ceiling, trying to remember what it was like in those days when he was so young. What kinds of things made a person take such suicidal risks. Idealism, of course. Ambition. Admiration for his Consul. Invincibility.
“It went well at first. I’d covered myself with dried mud so as to blend in with the night. The dogs didn’t smell me that way, either. Ogres don’t post sentries or build encampments, but rely on these fierce dogs to sound the warning. Large enough to tear out a man’s throat without standing on two legs. I cut the horses’ tethers and coaxed them with carrots I found nearby. For all I knew these horses ate flesh, but I figured the carrots had to be there for some reason. Then a horse nearby whinnied in distress that it wasn’t getting any carrots, and then all the dogs started barking and howling. So I hit the horses with the flat of my blade and shouted at them to send them running. I guess it would have been intelligent to ride one of the horses, but I’d never ridden a horse before and it never occurred to me.”
Lydra started laughing appreciatively.
“Instead I ran into the forest, the dogs on my heels and the Ogres just waking. I thought maybe I could climb a tree, but then the Ogres would bring me down. And then I remembered dogs didn’t like water. At least, not being submerged in it. So I made for the river, with the idea that I could float downstream until I reached the Legion. Unfortunately, some of the Ogres were coming up from the river from fishing. They spear their fish. So behind me were these huge dogs, and in front of me a bunch of Anembrones with spears. I figured the Ogres were easier, and just charged headlong. Really I just wanted to get to the river. But they were fast, even surprised. The Ogre dodged my swing and stabbed for my throat. I dodged, straight into another spear that sliced like so—“ He cupped his hand over hers and ran it down his body.
“I was running so fast I staggered straight into the river. I plunged headlong and started floating away. I think the Ogres found it so funny they went back to camp without another worry. I should have died then, but the mud packed the wound and kept the bleeding down. I knew I had to get out of the river before I passed out and drowned. I saw the light of torches and thought maybe it was the Legion, and swam onto the riverbank.”
“I lay there dying for a while, when I saw this beautiful girl with a jar on her head. Come to fetch water. I thought it was Illyria guiding me to heaven.”
“And I saw this strange man caked with mud and blood. A mysterious stranger as if by fate delivered into my arms.” Lydra answered. She kissed his shoulder and snuggled beside him again.
“She took me to the village, but they were afraid to help me. The Anembrones would destroy any Ogres caught aiding the legions. They told her to throw him back into the river. But she didn’t. Instead she took him to an old hut. A special place she’d found while a child exploring the woods. And every day she tended to him as best she could, bringing food and water and bandages and most of all her company and warmth. Most of all she brought herself, the new reason I’d found to stay alive. And every time I saw her, I fell in love all over again.”
“A month later Maximus found the village, having crushed the Anembrones and now sweeping the resistance of all the lesser tribes. He would have put the tribe to the sword, but he found me. Maximus marveled at my survival and asked me where I had been. I told him of my attempt to steal the horses and he laughed like a father listening to his foolish son. It turned out I had scared their horses away. And for thanks to the village for tending to me, he promised that the tribe would never have to pay tribute to Illyria for the rest of time.”
“And when you left, I left with you.” She replied. “I loved you when you were a helpless enemy. I married you when you were just a foolhardy legionnaire. And now a Consul.” She breathed. “And now a consul and the father of three wonderful children.”
“Marcus has grown so much.” Marcellus marveled. “When I left him, he wasn’t anything. Now look at him. So full of dreams and potential. He’s found a purpose in life. A goal.”
“He missed you most of all.” She said. “When he heard a Carian promising a release from pain, he listened to him days at a time. And the funny thing is, I think he found it. The Carian really had given him a release.”
“They’re a shifty lot. Mercenaries with no particular allegiance to Illyria. Of course they are a part of the Republic, but sometimes I think they think that they are the rulers and we are the followers.”
“Marcus thinks they are very wise.”
“He may be right. I listened to them as a child too, before I joined the Legion.”
“I’m glad you approve. I didn’t say anything because he was so much happier.”
Marcellus changed the subject. “What about Jania? She was quiet today.”
“You noticed? Jania is in love. She’s been waiting for you to come home, so she could marry him. But she could hardly say that when we were supposed to be celebrating your victory.”
“In love? My little Jania?”
“She’s older than many married girls, Marcellus. Time passes while you’re away.”
“With whom?” Marcellus rolled onto his elbow to look her in the eye.
“She wants you to meet him.” She smiled mysteriously. “She wants your blessing.”
Marcellus rolled back beside her, giving a long exhalation. “My little Jania.”
“We could always have another girl, if it aches your heart so much.” Lydra teased.
“Gods no! Three is enough trouble for any man.” He tried to hide the truth by making it a jest.
“There was a distance between you and Publius.” Lydra said. She always saw through him. Bad liars made the best husbands. “Did something happen out there?”
“I don’t know what to do, Lydra.” Marcellus confessed with a long exhalation. “He wants to be just like me. He wants to raid Ogre camps in the night and fight ten men at once and die as many times as I should have. How can I persuade him that he shouldn’t, when I myself at his age was being as foolish? I can’t say anything without being a hypocrite. If you ever do anything wrong in your life, it is enough to strip you of any moral authority you have to say what is right. All the wisdom of age is useless if you did not heed it as a youth. It’s too late to redeem your self in age, because nothing changes the fact of your past mistakes. All he has to do is point out the contradiction in my words now and my actions then, and I’m bereft of speech. It’s like I’m arguing with my younger self, with him.”
“It’ll all work out.” Lydra comforted, kissing him. “As long as you love each other, nothing can come between you. The only problem is that you love each other too much. And you’re both too stubborn to admit it.”
“The patricians have invited me to a celebration for my victory. I turned them down, but I’ll go if that’s where I’ll find Jania’s courtier.” He decided.
“I’m sure he’ll be there. He wants to meet you too.”
“Have you met this man?” Marcellus asked.
“Of course. Try not to scare this one away, my sweet. She has to marry someone, you know.”
“I’ll try.” Marcellus laughed, kissing her on the lips to seal the promise. Then he kissed her throat, her eyelids, her ear. Lydra laughed and started kissing him back. They had dreamed of this night for the last three years.
“You’re going to be late.” Lydra murmured in his ear. Marcellus didn’t need to open his eyes to see her. His head lay upon her bosom, his arm around her waist, and her hands stroked their way lovingly through his hair. His head rose and fell with her breath, as though he had found himself on the gentlest and softest and warmest sea under the sun. The waves rocked him back and forth, but only to lull him into a deeper comfort than any solid land could have provided. He had not forgotten this feeling in the rough and scarce winter camps, but it was a memory so different from his life that it had seemed like a dream. There was no way he had a wife this beautiful and wonderful waiting for him back home. There was no way he had two perfect children back home. Marching through the northern winter with only hardship and danger for company, Marcellus had not been sure his memories of life at home could realistically be anything more than fantasy. Now he was living the dream. And the cursed patricians with their cursed jabbering could just wait until he wanted to wake up.
Lydra could feel Marcellus’ body forcing itself back into loose relaxation, and shook in quiet laughter. Which of course Marcellus instantly felt and only smiled in recognition that he was being silly and she was right but he just couldn’t bear to admit it yet. It was a level of communication Marcellus had never known until he met her. She was the only person he could have an entire conversation with without a word. Illyria’s blessing. There was no better reason to believe in the Goddess, because his good fortune could only be explained by the intervention of one.
Lydra kissed the top of his head nestled on her bosom. “Come on, love. I thought the Legion taught men to wake up in the morning.”
Marcellus turned his head to meet bright blue eyes with common southern brown. “A bad habit I thought to be rid of.” He smiled winningly as she used her hands to stroke his hair into order.
“I suppose you think eating right and exercising are more habits that need forgetting?”
“Any habit that takes me away from you has to be bad.” He didn’t try to explain that this was the first night in a month he hadn’t been plagued by nightmares. Pain was best left forgotten.
Lydra smiled. “Then you have a lot of habits to forget.”
Marcellus stretched in place, old joints finding their way back into some semblance of a natural position. The pain was so customary that he no longer really felt it. “This boy had better be worth it.” Marcellus warned. He looked out the window to see the sun winding its lazy course through a clear blue sky. It was one of those days it was a sin not to enjoy. He didn’t feel like eating. Eating fogged up the mind. If he was going to find a husband for his daughter, he would have his mind whetted sharp with hunger. He would be like a shark with the smell of blood. Like the lion lean from the winter months, eyes mad with the desire to hunt down the stag.
He fetched his cloak and threw it around his shoulders to trap the heat of the house with him as he went into the city. It wasn’t all that cold, but he wanted to be warm enough that the scars didn’t act up on him. He was going to battle, and one must never show weakness to the enemy. People in the streets wisely made way from his gloomy face. He was actually happy with the morning and the festive atmosphere, but he couldn’t help but fall into a grim determination. It was the mindset he wore like a second skin going into battle, he couldn’t have abandoned it if he’d wanted to. He’d learned to expect the worst in battle, because confidence was a Consul’s worst foe. Jania had probably met a slick, oily, slippery eel from Caria. He probably wandered from town to town with no goals or means in life, his tongue slipping him into one girl’s bed from the next. Of course he knew Jania would not have loved such a man, but just the thought of it put a gloomy mask on his face that stormed like a thunderhead to the sumptuous garden estates of the wealthy patricians.
Slaves waited at the gates to invite guests and chase off people looking for a free meal. Most of the guests were being checked against a list, but none dared stop Marcellus from walking in unchallenged. If there hadn’t been an opening in the gate, it seemed, Marcellus would have walked through it. He hated these people. They sucked the countryside dry of all its abundance until they had more wealth than they could manage to waste on themselves. They had to invent new forms of luxuriant effeminacy simply to have something to do in life. They looked like squishy slugs lying on their couches, fat mouths filling fat bellies with wine and sweets. They accomplished nothing, living only due to their titles and holdings that seemed to increase of their own will. It made him sick that his legion fought to protect them. They undercut freemen with their slaves and debtors, until the freemen could no longer afford to compete with the great holdings of the patricians and were forced to sell their land or themselves to make up the debt of simply trying to make a living. Each enslaved freeman then became a part of the evil that went on to crush the next. It was impossible that good men who worked hard all their lives couldn’t afford to feed their families. But the patricians had worked hard to make it this way, so their affluence could wax while Illyria’s backbone pined away in servitude. The race of a Goddess! He thought in fury. Descendants of Illyria, living as slaves! It was unforgivable. It shamed the Goddess, it shamed the Republic, and worst of all it shamed all Illyrians who were willing to watch placidly their own kinsmen thrown into chains. If the Goddess’ own children were stripped of their dignity, who could feel safe? What would stop the Patricians from buying out Senate seats, or corrupting the Knights? What would stop these fat worms from burrowing through all the tissues and organs of the State, filling themselves with the blood of its victims? Marcellus hadn’t had time to notice or care about the going-ons of Scamander when all of Illyria was threatened by violent destruction. But he wondered how many people had followed the same path. If all the good men left to the frontiers to protect Illyria’s heart, who was left to be Illyria’s heart but the black refuse that had not dared to raise their heads before? What use to fight for an Illyria that abandoned the Goddess and became something worse than barbaric? No. Scamander could not be left to these men. He would not leave his wife and children at the mercy of these men.
A calm resolve washed over Marcellus as he stood gazing at the festive nobles. I see you now. As long as I was gone, you managed to escape justice. But I am here now. And I will not give you Scamander. Thoughts began churning in the back of his mind, plans he did not even understand taking shape. But before he could sink into thought the Patricians had noticed him and come flocking to his side.
“Welcome, friend!” A large Senator shouted. “Welcome to my home. This is a great surprise. My servants told me you had declined to show. But then, what else can you expect from servants?” The rest of the crowd laughed fawningly.
“Your servants said truly.” Marcellus answered tonelessly. “I changed my mind last night.”
“Ah, well.” The Senator waved it off dismissively. “Was there anything in particular you wished to see? Anyone you’d like to meet? I assure you everyone here is watching you out of the corner of their eyes for the chance to meet you. Is it true that you killed forty thousand Ogres in a single hour? Not even Maximus has had such a victo—“
“I’m not a Consul anymore.” Marcellus broke in quickly. “The war is over.” He fought to keep a blank face. These men did not deserve to see the pain that was gripping his heart. They did not deserve to see the soulfire raging behind his eyes, to know his true self in any way. He would feel polluted if any of them knew him deeper than his face.
The Senator coughed, not sure what to do with a person who refused the proper courtesies. “Of course. Of course the war is over. This is a feast in celebration of that very thing, is it not?” He gave a nervous chuckle in fear that Marcellus planned to catch him in a lie. Marcellus remained staring at him blankly. “Yes, well, you must excuse me. I must see—“ The Senator looked around for an escape. “I must see to the wine. Who knows what vintage my servants will try to serve?” The crowd seemed to wash away from Marcellus with equal speed.
Marcellus took a long, shuddering breath. He couldn’t get the image of blue-eyed children standing as the only warriors left brave enough to hold their arms. They knew they were dead. They already knew they were dead. Their eyes were dilated with the terror, their entire bodies shaking with it. Why did they have to die? O Illyria! Why did I refuse to heed you? Why did I have to kill them? Marcellus stumbled to the grass, knowing he should not have come. This was a feast in celebration of butchery. To come here was to take pride in what he’d done. It was to receive praise for it. It was a betrayal of himself and those children, to have come here.
“Are you well, sir?” A clean voice came from above him. A man stood with two friends, his skin the color of finely powdered nutmeg. He offered his hand to help Marcellus up. Marcellus looked at his benefactor, the thin strong body of a man used to action, and clasped his wrist.
“Forgive me for asking,” The youth said, “but you don’t seem to fit in with your surroundings.”
“I am called Marcellus.” He answered the unspoken question. “You hardly seem to be a native yourself.”
The youth nodded in recognition, but not obsequiousness. Marcellus instantly took a liking to the boy. “My name is Jacob son of Myrrh. It is an honor to meet you, sir. And as to this—“ Jacob sent his hand fluttering to indicate the garden, “It is a part of my job I am hardly fond of.”
“And what is your job, son of a woman?” Marcellus asked pointedly.
Jacob smiled, showing a line of white teeth. “Yes, well, the world can be sure I am my mother’s son. But as to the father?” Jacob shook his head. “Who can know what seed grows in a woman’s womb?”
“Your women are that untrustworthy?” Marcellus jabbed. He supposed the boy hardly deserved the anger Marcellus felt for himself, but that did not stop him from venting it.
Jacob widened his smile. “I only wish our women were as noble and pure as your own.” He made no gesture to the lazing and laughing women around them, but his doing so seemed to highlight them all the more.
Marcellus smiled back to a worthy opponent. “Is bandying words with your elders another regrettable part of your job, Jacob son of Myrrh?”
Jacob laughed. “A merchant’s words are his sharpest weapons. I fight with them to keep these bloodsuckers from stealing the whole of the goods I come to trade with, and I fight with them against any man who takes my wrist only so that he can scorn my people.”
Marcellus nodded, eyeing Jacob once more with weighing scales. “You believe Illyria’s tariffs bloodsucking? What is the term for merchants who pour luxury and indolence and effeminacy into our shores?”
“What is the term for a Consul who slaughters forty-thousand men, women, and children because they wanted to retain the land and freedom of their ancestors?”
Marcellus blinked, the blow taking him completely by surprise. How dare this boy--? What did he know of--? Then he watched Jacob’s hard unwavering stare with a new wariness. This man was a leopard. He had a quiet anger, a cold, quiet anger raging in those charcoal eyes. And for every sally Marcellus took, he would strike back with equal strength. Jacob was not attempting to hurt him with his words. He was showing that he would not take insult lying down. He was refusing to be hurt.
“The term for such a Consul is a hero.” Marcellus finally answered. “Because he had the courage to protect the children of Illyria at the price of his own soul.”
Jacob answered in like kind. “The term for such a merchant is a saint, for his entire life he works to provide happiness to others.”
“You equate happiness with pleasure?”
“Look around you, sir. How much of this is yours?” Jacob asked coldly. “You have fine wine, I will grant you. The finest glass. Feats of engineering. But how much of Illyria’s greatness is her own? Lucia gives you the strong horses, Mania your iron and tin, Caria your statues and paintings and books and schools. Necia invented the triremes that Illyria sails, our mariners learned the skills that tamed the sea. We invented the written language you use. Our wheat and corn feeds your people. Oh yes, you have farmers, but do you think your farmers feed Scamander’s million every day? The silk and fine wool is from Datia. Lucia crafts the finest armour and swords. The powders and perfumes that make your women sweet are Leucadia’s. The spices and preservatives that make your meals sweet as well. Necia makes the paper your nation is built upon, though your laws are chiseled in stone. And Caria, I’m afraid, gives you the oil for your lanterns and cookfires and the heating of your homes. Each person has a greatness, Marcellus, just as each nation does. But each person alone burns shortly before nature’s hand snuffs them out. It is a weaver’s job, to connect thread to thread, until tiny wisps come together to form the strong cloth you wear. It is a merchant’s job, Marcellus, to connect fire to fire, each nation’s greatness adding new strength to the other. It is a merchant’s job to be a citizen of the world. We are the fireweavers who give humanity their greatness. We are the men who free the Goddesses’ children from the brutish, animal life of the Jinni, the Ogres, and the Centaurs. We are the tenders of the sacred flame, and without us Illyria and Necia and Datia would all burn away, nothing but dust in the wind.” Jacob’s cold voice had reached a controlled fervency that could not conceal the depth of belief he had in his words.
Why would this boy reveal his heart to me? Marcellus wondered. He has just stripped naked before me. This is his soul he has allowed me to judge, his reason for living. He has shown me the value of his life, his honor and pride. This is not what one shows a stranger. And then something clicked in his mind, and Marcellus gave a slight chuckle in appreciation.
“When did you meet?” He asked lightly.
Jacob blinked, a warm smile curving around his lips. The smile one gave to a friend, not an enemy. “She had come to buy perfume at the market. I had never seen her like. Sun-bleached hair and bright blue eyes, the color of an ice-sheathed sky. It was the face of a beauty divine.”
“I thought as much when I saw her mother. When I see my wife even now.” Marcellus shared. “I married into a race of angels.”
Jacob looked hesitantly at the scarred, bluff man. “You will forgive me, sir, for the deception. I saw you here, and I came to talk to you because I love your daughter. I knew who you were the moment I saw you.”
“Nothing you said was a lie.” Marcellus replied. “Or else I would not be talking to you now. I would not give Jania to a slick tongue. But I would to a bright and clever man who uses it to fight for the things he loves.” I only wish I could have fought the same.
Jacob nodded. “We don’t name ourselves after our mothers as a joke, either. Necians don’t like sharing the truth with foreigners, but I trust you with it. By naming ourselves after our mothers, we honour Necia as the mother of us all.”
Marcellus nodded. “Then I am glad to know my son is a pious man.”
Scamander’s streets took on a ruddy glow from the setting sun. Marcellus paused a moment to appreciate them, because today he was ready to feel happy about everything. The streets were wide enough to allow four wagons to pass each other at once, wide enough to parade a legion on the march. The edges of the streets dipped into gutters, where an incredibly complex aqueduct system sent runoff from the hills to clear off all the waste and wash the city clean each night. Palaces and temples lined the street, a line of architecture that spoke of Illyria’s wealth and glory. Some people resented the buildings as wasteful of the public treasury. Marcellus didn’t agree. These buildings were solid structures, works of stone that were meant to stand for all time. They were monuments to the Goddess and her people, so that Scamander could look upon them with a sense of reverence and pride. So long as Illyria stood, these temples would remain. And so long as these temples remained, Illyria would never forget the blessing that their lives were within the Goddess’ bosom, and not the icy frontiers of humanity. A young boy would look upon these temples and be filled with love for his city. He would fight to protect Illyria because of the bright and beautiful city he remembered no matter how long it had been since he had last gazed upon it. Art was divine, and it evoked the divine of the human spirit. He only wished gold would always serve to evoke the goodness within people.
“You look like you’re walking in a dream.” Fabius said cajolingly. Marcellus shook his head, trying to remember where he was and what he was doing. Old age wasn’t satisfied with making his body suffer, it had to make his mind slower and stiffer as well.
“I was just thinking.” He said. “That Maximus was a great man for the republic. The wealth of this street could never have happened without his virtual doubling of the state.”
“Too much wealth from others makes for too many people with no reason to seek wealth of their own.”
“I know, old friend. Every day the patricians find new ways to distract and please the mob. Circuses and plays and music and performances, they come and go and are forgotten as though they’d never happened. But these buildings. This street. This is real. This is solid. This is the wealth of our city, the wealth that will shine forever.”
“The people respect you, Marcellus, but sometimes they fear having to live up to you. If you become the tribune, they mutter, all of Scamander would have to align itself to virtue. They all know you would do them good, but none of them want to abandon their pet pleasures for it.”
“I trust them, Fabius. I trust they will do the right thing. Illyria’s children are not like Datia’s. I’ve seen our Legions marching and camping and fighting year after year, decade after decade, without a single complaint. That sort of virtue does not end at Scamander’s gates. It is in all Illyria. Because Illyria is in all of us.”
“I hope you’re right.” Fabius said, sounding none too sure.
“But enough of politics for today. Today my little Jania is to be wed. I will not let politics own this day.”
“Your little Jania.” Fabius laughed. “When will she be older than ten in your eyes?”
“Never.” Marcellus said, smiling. “She can never be older than ten. I won’t permit it.” The ceremony was supposed to start with the setting sun, and was located outside the city a fair ways. If they wished to reach the wedding, Marcellus couldn’t stare off into space or talk politics much longer. Scamander lay in a valley ringed by hills, the natural barriers of sea and earth allowing even the blindest eye to see a potential city. But even their founders could not have known how great that potential was. Marcellus shook his head again. Would you stop going off on tangents? Are you going to see your daughter wed or not? He just hated to think that he was really going to give his daughter into another house. Maybe if he just stood here, it wouldn’t happen. Maybe time would freeze so long as he stood here. It seemed like his best plan all day.
“Cold feet, and you not even the groom?” Fabius laughed, pushing him a step forward. Marcellus shot him a glare, but at least he was walking again. There were still thousands of people making their way through the streets, but he felt like they were the only ones there. Who else was walking to their daughter’s wedding? Putting another foot in front of the first, he refused to keep thinking. He hadn’t been this nervous when he’d been the first assailant up the west wall of Taigin. Marcellus had somehow made it to the top, and killed five men in a row to keep that foothold before the next man on the ladder came up beside him. That was child’s play compared to this. He was afraid the butterflies in his belly would break something, they were flying around so fiercely. He didn’t even know why he was nervous. It just seemed like something was horribly dangerous waiting for him at the stream-fed orange orchard where the bridal torch burned above the glassy winter chalice. Something was waiting there, lurking, ready to steal away his daughter from him. His little Jania, the sound of the flute or her singing never again to greet the morning sun. No more blankets woven with flowers and birds would reach him in the winter camps of Mania, so that the whole Legion roared in laughter and Marcellus hid his face for days in shame. How could he let anyone take her away? That blue-eyed reflection of the Lydra he had met so long ago? How had he ever allowed it? And yet he continued walking forward. He had never turned his back in a fight, even the times when everyone around him had. Even when he was surrounded by Ogres and his whole wing collapsed behind him, and only Fabius’ quick relief had saved Maximus from defeat. His courage could not fail once, not ever, if he meant to believe he had ever been a courageous man. All it took to be a coward was to falter once. After that, it was only a question of how much a coward one was. He refused to have to answer that question. As black as his soul was, at least it would not be yellow. He had to have a virtue stand. He’d lost piety. He’d lost wisdom. He had to keep something, if he wanted to look himself in the mirror for the rest of his years.
The two exited Scamander’s walls and began the trek up the hillside. Other old men might have had a problem with the hike, but the seasoned veterans hardly lost a stride or a breath. They had marched too many thousand miles for a hill to reach their legs’ notice. It was a beautiful sight, the sun emerging from beneath the hill. The sun had already set on the city, but at the top of the hill it still clung brilliantly to the horizon. Clouds soaked up the light of the bleeding sun like sponges, turning gold and orange and purple with the rainbow dye. And on the far side of the hill, out of Scamander’s view and alongside a downward hurtling stream, stood the congregation of family and friends. Publius gave his father a nod of recognition from below, his Legion giving him leave to attend the wedding. Marcus waved as well, released from his studies at the Academy.
A small waterfall splashed behind Jania and Jacob, itself shining with sunfed drops of red and gold. Bare winter branches were bedecked with ribbons of yellow and orange silk, giving the look of leaves fluttering in the wind if one didn’t look too closely. Where the trees did not afford adornment, long poles were erected and covered with ribbons and lanterns. When the sun set, symbolizing the end of the old, those lanterns would spark to life, giving off the bright fresh light of the new. Marcellus exhaled sharply with the beauty of it. Lydra hadn’t let a hint out of her preparations, as it was the mother’s job to see her daughter off. But she must have been working at them ever since the date had been set three months ago. The pale hair of her daughter hung in short wisps, a tiny smile on her face that she did not seem to know was there and a garland of flowers crowning her head. The long lock of blonde hair lay at a wooden stake nearby, the virgin’s gift to the Goddess in remembrance of her wedding to the men of the dawntime. Jacob stood so still Marcellus could not be sure he was still alive or petrified stone. He looked afraid that his slightest motion would break something. The poor boy, he still didn’t know how a wedding was done in Illyria. It was an ill omen, for a boy to have a part in the planning of his wedding. The Goddess might not give her blessings to the overproud. Marcellus knew that feeling. All he had wanted was for the wedding to end, so that he could escape all those eyes and lay with the woman he loved. Every wedding was the triumphal torture of a man’s life by women. But he couldn’t have imagined it any other way.
The priest stood atop his altar, steaming blood covering his hands as he carefully sacrificed the bull to the Goddess. Marcellus thought it a waste of a good bull no Goddess would have any use for, but he could never have said it. If the priests were not needed to make sacrifices, then there would be no more priests. Which the priests were decidedly against. So it was no wonder they treated any questioning of their rituals as heresy against the Goddess herself. It was almost funny, if not for the thousands of sheep and bulls who were slaughtered so pointlessly. No wonder Ogres were always stronger and larger than Illyrians. They got to eat their livestock. The priest carefully washed his hands off and set the offering aflame. If the sacrifice had gone wrong in any particular, he would have had to start over with another bull. There was the tale of a priest once slaughtering a farmer’s whole herd through the night before the wedding could proceed. Unfortunately, the bride no longer wished to marry a farmer now penniless, and so the farmer had went home bereft of livelihood and love. If Marcellus remembered, the farmer had killed himself soon after, as a lesson to any fool who married a woman whose eye rested on his flocks. A hard lesson, but then Illyrians were a hard people.
Presently, a flute began to play. And then another. Until a whole line of maidens stepped forward with their sad song. The sun’s dying rays glinted off those silver-chased reeds and eyes slitted with concentration before finally escaping to the ether. The song was as old as Illyria, the evening song that marked the passage of life into death. The song played so long as any of the sun could be seen, repeating itself time and again in a mournful cycle as if to coax the sun to sleep. When the flutes had conquered the sky and stars began to shine, the priest stepped forward between the bride and groom.
“The day is dead, winter’s night embracing us with its icy fingers. Who will brave this cold darkness?”
Jacob watched silently. Everyone waited silently. A muffled cough came from the crowd. A few whispers were heard before they were snuffed out by stern looks. The priest looked at Jacob with a flustered anger.
“Who will brave this cold darkness?” He asked again.
Jacob looked to his left and right, waiting for someone to do something. Then he jumped with a look of horrified realization. He quickly opened his mouth in fear that his answer was too late. “I will, sir.”
The priest nodded in relief, things falling back into place. “And who will kindle tomorrow’s flame?”
Jania stepped forward with perfect poise. “I will, father.”
“Take your bride’s hand.” The priest ordered, and Jacob quickly obeyed. “Do you pledge to love and honour this maiden? To protect her from the demons’ gifts and provide her with the Goddess’ blessings?”
“With all my heart yes.” He answered proudly, his voice anchored by the strongest assurance he had in his entire life.
“And do you pledge to love and honour this man? To bring him the joy of the Goddess’ hearth and the comfort of a home free of demons’ gifts?”
“On my soul, yes.” She said, gazing into Jacob’s eyes with sheer bliss.
“Then wrap this cloth around your wrists.” He recited gravely, passing the red silk to Jacob’s free hand. Jacob almost dropped the cloth out of nervousness, but he finally bound them together satisfactorily.
“The day is dead. Winter’s night holds us all in its icy embrace.” The priest said. “But a new fire has been lit—“ And the orchard erupted into lantern light that revealed the blowing ribbons and sparkling waterfall once more. “And with Illyria’s blessing the sun will rise again to greet it.” Lydra carefully took the bridal torch and lowered it into the chalice. A hiss of smoke, and the fire was gone. A man’s love finding its way into his wife’s womb. The crowd gave out a great shout of cheer, and a line of fiddlers broke out into a furiously paced song of joy in the row opposite the flutists. The crowd began to break away into spontaneous dancing, their shadows spinning about beneath the lantern light. Jacob and Jania stood watching each other, deaf to the world. They were content to remain standing there for the rest of time.
Marcellus roughly wiped moisture from his eyes. The lantern’s smoke had aggravated them, was all. His little Jania. His little Jania.
“The streets are not safe today, father.” Marcus implored. “Please, just stay with us. No one will think—“ Marcus realized that was the worst thing he could have said to his father.
“Me a coward.” Marcellus finished. “But I don’t care what other people think, son. Because I will know myself for a coward. Because I will be one, regardless of who thinks or knows what.”
“Courage isn’t suicide!” Marcus shouted. Shouted! At his father! “There is a plot against you. They will kill you today if you go to the Hall! They will kill you if you even walk outside. Please, father, by the grace of the Goddess we learned of this plot! How can you still walk into their clutches like a blind man?”
“Even if I knew I would die today—“ Marcellus shot his hand out to stop Marcus’ interruption before it began. “Even if I knew, I would walk to the Hall. If you don’t understand why yet, then you don’t understand anything. I have been ready to die for Illyria for the past thirty years. What is the difference now? Again, Illyria is threatened with destruction. Again, I am willing to die for it. How does it change which hand raises a dagger against me? If no one is willing to risk his life for Illyria, Illyria isn’t worth the breath used to speak it. Do you think this country will stand for a minute, a second, if no one was willing to protect it? Do you think anything valuable can be possessed without fighting for it? All life is a war! Whether I stand inside this house or walk into Scamander’s streets, I’m risking my life. And eventually I’ll lose, one way or another. The only question is what I will lose for. You, Marcus? You, Lydra? My home? My cloak? It’s all dust! Dust and air! Or I could fight for Justice. I could fight for Freedom. I could fight for the safety of Illyria and the sanctity of the Goddess. I will die, today or tomorrow. But I will not die for dust! Not when I need only look upwards and witness the divine!”
“You can’t die for anything!” Marcus railed. “You can only live for it! Live for justice! Live for freedom! But what use will justice or freedom have with your corpse? How will your worm-eaten innards avail the Goddess or her people or your family or anything? If you want to save this country, don’t let your pride, don’t let your ego destroy the one person who still has the chance to save it! There will be other days and other times. As long as you’re alive, there is hope. There is the potential for justice and freedom and virtue to win the field! Who will the people turn to, with you dead? The mob is of two minds, father. They respect you as the hero who saved Illyria, but their eyes are turned by the bounty of free corn and grain and circuses and parades. You have a city full of good people who know the Good when they see it, but whose eyes are shrouded with sloth and luxury. When there is no more goodness for them to look to, all they will ever see is Mahara and Sheole. You will have abandoned them to the Demons, father, all so that your pride can be satisfied as to your own insane standards of courage!”
“If I let them determine my actions even once, what’s to stop them from ruling me with fear and violence from then on? If the enemy ever knows I’m weak, if they ever believe I can be enslaved, then they will devour me like buzzards that spy a wounded man. If evil is ever seen to profit them, what will stop them from embracing it at its deepest roots? No longer will they threaten me for taking to the streets. They will threaten you, son. They will threaten my wife. My daughter. They will threaten everything I hold dear and they will do anything imaginable because they know I’m too much of a coward to stop them. I must show them now, this very day, before they’ve become Mahara’s dogs, that nothing they can do can ever stop a good man from doing the right thing. Nothing can enslave a man who chooses to be free. And if they think their daggers will keep me from making my speech at the Hall, then they will learn what it means for their soft cityfolk to face a Legionnaire.” Marcellus strapped on his sword, pulling his cloak over it so that none could have told.
Marcus dropped onto his knees, grabbing for Marcellus’ hands. Marcellus nimbly jumped back, not letting the suppliant’s touch reach him. Marcus lay there on the carpet, his hands outstretched, like a broken puppet. And cried. Marcellus remembered something Lydra had told him those months ago—“He missed you most of all.” He watched his son’s body quake with sobs, and felt more helplessly weak than he had known possible. Here lays my son crying, and there is nothing I can do. A great red fire started somewhere in his guts. It dimmed out his vision and filled it with a wordless rage. They dare! They dare to turn me against my son! I—will—never—forgive—them! He had only known contempt for the patricians until this day. The hatred he felt now was searing his bones, shooting through his every muscle. He wanted to rip each of their throats out one by one. He wanted to carve their corpses apart and throw them into the sea to be devoured by sharks. He wanted to marshal the Legion and go on a hunt that would soak this city with the blood of his foes!
“Marcellus!” Lydra cried out, terrified at what she saw in his eyes. And her voice came as a bucket of ice water over his head. He shivered, feeling the anger throb away. He shivered to know what he had been capable of doing. Illyria, Illyria, the darkness of my soul! He rubbed his head, which felt of fever. Sheole’s greatest power was to bring out the evil in others. He would not let it reach him. He would not let them bring out the worst in him. He would not fight their evil with evil yet greater, in an ascending spiral. He would meet them with good, or else this fight would mean Illyria’s loss whoever the winner. If only his soul had the strength to be good. I am the Goddess’ champion, he laughed inwardly, and she knows me to be her blackest sinner. But someone had to fight. No one else dared run for tribune after this. He could not just recognize his sin and not redeem it. Forty thousand people lay dead at his hands, and Illyria had shown him a way to save a hundred thousand in return. It was not enough to want to be good, to want redemption. It started with this day. Whether he wished to be Illyria’s saviour or her destroyer or a nameless slave who surrendered his power to those who were willing to use it. The choice was his. Marcellus kissed Lydra, murmuring all would be well. He stepped around Marcus’ crying body, and stepped out the door.
Marcellus half expected a crash of thunder to announce the moment, but the city bustled under the morning sun oblivious. It was his pride, again, thinking the world revolved around him. Perhaps Marcus was right. And yet, what else could he have done? Marcellus took his bearings, and then started on his way through the densest crowds on the largest avenues to the Senate Hall. To beseech the citizenry for his appointment as Tribune. Because today Scamander chose who would represent the people. The patricians already had the Senate under its thumb. If the tribuneship passed into their hands, it would be ridiculous to believe Illyria was still a democracy and not an oligarchy. The wealthy, landed class would continue to accrue all the wealth and land of the Republic, until they would own everything, even the bodies and souls of the populace they pretended to represent. What other choice could he have made? Stay home and watch the whole thing unfold, knowing it had been in his power to stop it? There was nothing else he could have done. He did not think they would dare to kill him in front of everyone. They had counted on the threat to be enough, but they didn’t have the courage to go through with it. It would be political suicide, to assassinate your rival in broad daylight on the day of the election. Who would vote for a killer? No, he would be safe today. Marcellus started going over the speech in his head. He knew what to say, just not how to say it. How to make people understand why he was right. He was not a man of words, but they were the only things he could save his country with. A few words controlled the deployment of all the swords in the world. A man of words had power over men, the greatest power of all. He could not let them hold that power. Illyria’s grace be upon him this day, that her wisdom could guide his tongue. If she loved her people, she would bless Marcellus so. He was counting on it.
“Your walk ends here, old man.” A squinty-eyed rat said. Men surrounded him without trying to look as though they were surrounding him. And no one particularly was barring his way. Clever of them, to threaten without looking like it even now. Marcellus gave no answer, he did not even change his pace. He continued walking forward as if he hadn’t heard, right by two men who were too hesitant to do anything about it. Someone grabbed his shoulder, but he shrugged free and kept walking, still as though he hadn’t noticed. Let them kill me in cold blood in the middle of the street. Let them even try.
A part of the crowd began to hurry back in front and around him, this time more constricting and obvious. “I said stop!” The rat raised his voice over the din of the crowd. A few onlookers suddenly noticed it was Marcellus in their midst who was being ringed about. A few murmurs broke out in the crowd, ones of anger or distress. Others quietly slipped away as quickly as possible to avoid being involved. ‘Let the mighty fight it out, I just want to tend my crops and hearth.’ Marcellus watched those people leave with disgust. The only difference between the mighty and the weak was that the mighty were willing to fight it out.
“You should not have left home, today.” The rat said. Oh, that’s good, convince your killers it is my fault. Convince me that the blood on your daggers will be my fault, because I decided to walk the public streets of my own city. And call me ‘old man’ and the like, never by name, because you don’t want to kill a person with a name. It must be a talent, to deceive yourself out of guilt or shame. A talent, to forget all the lessons life has tried to teach you. The only talent stupidity can claim. Marcellus blank stare seemed to infuriate the rat more than anything. Oh yes, I should be fearful or defiant. I should react to you in distress, so that you know that you are in control. Wouldn’t it be nice, to think you had power over me? But you don’t. You couldn’t have power over a worm. The crowd shifted and swore. Like Marcus had said, they knew Good when they saw it. Their minds just didn’t follow the true course of their hearts, out of fear or effeminacy or jealousy or greed. He wished they all had to fight in the Legion, just so they could learn what honour meant. But they were his hope, now. His life was in their hands. What would they choose, their hearts’ righteous anger or their minds’ sinking depravity? He trusted them. The Goddess would preserve him. They had no power over one cloaked in her favour.
“Say nothing, then!” The rat shouted. “It won’t change anything. You’ve lost. Now go home. Be thankful you still have a home to go to!” Most clever, reminding me of how kind you are to not kill my innocent wife and children as well. But what happens a week from now, when you demand my wife, and say ‘be thankful you have your sons?’ What happens two weeks from now, when you take my sons, and say “be thankful you have a daughter?’. What happens when you take my daughter, and say ‘be thankful we will not torture and defile her before she dies?’ When a lion devours a deer’s leg, the deer is not thankful to retain its head. The lion and the deer both know that it will not end with a leg. How could humans not understand something rabbits and deer have known all along? Are we really that stupid?
The rat was losing control, Marcellus’ blank stare and silent gaze watching him like some wall he didn’t feel like climbing over just yet. The crowd began to swell with the talk of assassins, and the loudness of the crowd started to make up for the silence of the victim. Marcellus understood this as well. A crowd will watch a man fight and die even against hopeless odds and feel nothing amiss. But a crowd would not watch a man stand silent and peaceful while his killers assaulted him. That was unfair. Marcellus smiled. People were funny. Illyria had a good sense of humour when she made them.
“What are you smiling about?” The rat asked nervously, looking to see if armsmen were coming. “I’ll carve that smile off your face!” He drew his dagger, giving the sign for the attack. But the crowd’s murmurs became an ocean swell of outrage.
“NO! NO!” They surged. “MURDERERS! ASSASSINS!” The ring of men with daggers was swamped by a hoard of angry barehanded craftsmen and farmers. Those who didn’t get swarmed immediately saw how the chips had flown and ran for their lives. The murderers who had come to kill a helpless old man were all beaten bloody or fleeing in panic. He would have fought, before the first assassin would have reached him. But Marcellus took his hand off the hilt of his sword, and pumped his fist in victory. The crowd roared in response. He could feel the instant bond between them, the bond between a commander and his soldiers after a victory. He could feel their loyalty latch onto him, all their worries wash away with the sense of purpose and strength. Marcellus looked at them with wonder, to see such a transformation happen in a matter of seconds. Craftsmen and farmers, simply by fighting together for what they knew was right, were suddenly an army bent on victory whatever the cost. And from that point on, Marcellus approached the Senate with a new legion as escort. Those who saw the entourage gaped in excitement and quickly joined their ranks. They wanted to be the men who had marched with Marcellus. They wanted to tell their children that one day they had protected all of Illyria. They saw the joy and excitement of the crowd and wanted to be a part of it. A part of something greater.
And so by the time he reached the Senate, thousands of men were shouting and marching, until the Senators must have thought they were under attack. Those who saw the teeming crowd bursting through all the streets and back alleys thought it was another Corn Riot, which had once almost burned the entire city down. And at the center, as though the head of a giant’s body, walked Marcellus in his stately pace and cloak thrust back to reveal his sword. The crowd saw it and cheered wildly. Marcellus had come to fight for Illyria. Marcellus was willing to fight to the death for them, for Scamander. Everyone who saw him instantly fell in love with him, like some incredible sorcery. There was a glamour woven around Marcellus, the Goddess herself charming all those who looked upon her champion. Only that could explain the great cries of joy that followed Marcellus’ march to the Hall.
“Citizens of Illyria, today I come to ask for your vote. You all know what is at stake here! You all know the content of my adversary’s character, and what such a rule as his would entail. I will tell you what will happen under him! No man will be safe in the streets, for fear of offending the powers that be! No man will be secure in his property, for the courts and the Knights shall take it from them! No farmer shall own the land of his father and his grandfather, for the patricians will come to seize it! Illyria will become a nation of slaves, and a few rich cutthroats its tyrants!” A tide of no’s! and Murderers! And Slavers! broke through the crowd, drowning out Marcellus’ voice.
“But I offer something else! I offer you a Republic, like the Republic of our fathers! Like the Republic of our grandfathers! Where no one would use the law as the weapon to silence one’s enemies. When no innocent need fear an accuser, where no Knight would exile our brightest and best! I will free all the sons of free fathers! I will end all the debts that made a man sell his own family into slavery to stave off starvation. I will free all the children of Illyria, children whose blood runs with the Goddess divine, a people free and proud, beholden to none but the Lady our Goddess Herself!” More cheers wracked the auditorium, people screaming for the end of debts that poised them on the brink of selling their own children as slaves to the Patricians and their ancestral homes to become part of the great holdings of the slave-tilled Patrician fields.
“I offer free land for everyone willing to claim it! I offer virgin soil, deep and black, for the plowing! So that famine will never seize this land again. So that we will never depend on Necia’s good will to feed our own children! I have seen this land, I know it’s worth. It’s the very land Maximus has spent the last thirty years conquering for you. The same land I defended for you last winter! The frontier is empty for the taking, for I have emptied it! And it is in your power to fill it with Illyria’s children. It is in your power to make the frontier populated by Illyrians! I offer honeybees and large families! I offer a diet of fruits and meat beside your grain and corn! I offer a land so thickly populated that the Ogres will never dare to enter it again! I offer the legions that will be needed to protect it, the legions that will keep Mania safe for the next ten generations!”
The cheers erupted anew, this time from young men and women with eager eyes. The Goddess knew how so many could live in so small a place, how small the farms were becoming for the lack of room to provide for more. The Goddess knew how many brave men and women would seek out a new home, if it meant owning as much land as the Patricians as a reward for simply living there. It was Marcellus’ greatest dream. His life’s vision, to see all the land he had fought for brought to cultivation by his people. To see new cities spring forth from the very earth, and fill the land with beauty and grace. To justify all the wars, all the slaughters, all the blood, to make it all worth it, by bringing an even better life to those who followed after than those who had gone before. Marcellus would die content, if he could see Mania become as much a province of the Republic as Lucia or Caria. If all the war was fought for this great Making, the making of a whole new land under the Goddess’ wing.
“I offer you all this! And all I ask of you is your vote. All I ask of you is to be given the power to bless you!” The cheers became an ocean’s roar.
The Senate knew Marcellus would be Tribune before he made his speech. At that point, they knew he could have been Dictator.
Marcus carefully made his way to the center of the auditorium. It was his first public performance, and he just knew he was going to trip over his clothing and become the mockery of the entire city. The people cheered him wildly, but they weren’t cheering him. They were cheering Marcellus’ son. Marcus did not accept any praise he had not earned himself. Taking his pose, he let his mind unlock the gate to his memory and reveal his poem to the world.
“Shades of the earth, hear your tale! For today Scamander will know its dread fate!
For every beginning comes an end. For every dawn an eve.
And on that eve, the sky will grow dark with the burned-out sun.
Clouds will cover both moon and stars for seven years. And all the earth shall turn to dust.
And on that seventh hour, when all mankind will howl with suffering,
There will be no wheat nor corn. And all the fish will have gone.
The deer shall starve, and then the wolves. And all the animals shall pass away.”
“And with the quaking earth, the seas and lands shall split asunder, the gates of Hell unleashed.”
And there will come the terrible three-headed hound of Hell!
Breathing fire from each face, jaws gnashing and eyes flashing.
Evil will stalk the earth, Sheole, Mahara, and Zakine fused into one dread form.
And in their wake will come all their dogs. The dead souls outnumbering the living.
Greed and envy will come yipping! All the dogs that once held the slaver’s whip!
Then cowardice and indolence will raise their cry! All the dogs who lived as slaves!”
“That Cerberus of Cocytus will howl to the cloud-covered sky.
And all its dogs will howl, so many to sound like thunder to every ear.
And Illyrians, Necians, Datians all will groan from their rending jaws.
For cursed we are, thrice over, and cursed is our lot!
And cursed are the dead! And cursed are the living! For suffering is our lot!
And cursed were we born, and cursed shall we die!
The seas will boil, the earth shall split, and the barren earth shall bear life no more!”
Marcus fell silent, his voice echoing and reechoing through the auditorium stone. He did not know what to expect. Who could cheer after such a poem? The poem befit only the silence of the grave. Marcus watched the crowd stand still, unmoving, as though pierced by some lance’s shaft. He had reached them. He had pierced their souls. With a slight bow, he walked back to his place among the other poets. Not a sound accompanied him down the stage.
“You were great.” Dio said as he rejoined the young performers. Dio moved to embrace him, but Marcus shied away. The boy cast Marcus a sullen and hurt look, and let his arms drop.
“Dio, Dio.” Marcus coaxed. “Don’t be like that. It’s just my father wouldn’t understand.”
“What is there to misunderstand?” Dio spoke sharply. “That I love you and am happy for you?”
“He just doesn’t see it.” Marcus said in frustration. “I mentioned just the theory of pure love and he looked furious! I was afraid he would take me out of the Academy! He will take me out if he ever sees us. Or even hears of us. Or anything. The most innocent caress would be damning in his eyes.”
“I thought your father supported the Academy.” Dio sympathized.
“He does, but not when it conflicts with the military virtues. He's lived in the Legion too long to see us as anything but soft and weak.” Marcus sighed. “I hate being his enemy. I hate being my father’s enemy simply because of who I am. A person’s hatred should only be earned as a judgment for what they do. How can you condemn someone for what they are?”
Dio moved to touch him, then dropped his hand with a look of disgust. “This is just perfect. Our love condemns you in your father’s eyes, and I can’t even give my comfort in recompense.”
Marcus barked a bitter laugh at that. “How easy it is for evil to own the soul. If I asked father if he trusted me, if he were proud of me, if he loved me, he would be the first to affirm. He doesn’t even know that he hates his own son. He thinks his hatred of effeminacy touches nothing, has no correspondence to reality. But hatred always finds a way. It always finds a way to tear lives apart.”
“I guess that’s why you read that poem today.” Dio said.
Marcus nodded. “If anyone thinks I’m happy after that they don’t deserve to. . .” Marcus opened his fist with the gesture of the proper words escaping like a bird to the air.
“There can be joy even in sorrow.” Dio gave him a pleading look.
“I can’t, Dio. No, I really can’t. Please don’t ask me to.” Dio grew quiet after that, but Marcus could feel the question still coming from his eyes. He felt so helpless with Dio. Like he never added up to what Dio wanted of him. Like Dio could never be satisfied with what he gave. He loved Dio, but sometimes it was like that’s not what Dio wanted. It made being with him so hard. Everything was so hard now. Nothing was easy. There was no safe harbour left to return to. Just a year ago, just a year, everything was easy and safe. What had happened? How had everything become a source of pain and fear? A year ago he loved his father more than anything. What had happened? He had loved being at the Academy, it had been the one place fear and loneliness couldn’t touch him. Now he was drowned in a surge of jealousy and possessiveness and feuds. How had this happened? How could anyone have willed this to happen? It made him want to go home and cry into his pillow. The soft, quiet tears that never reached his parent’s door. But once he’d run out of tears and fallen asleep, nothing had changed. Marcus knew that now. Tears changed nothing. He guessed that was why adults never bothered to cry. The other children hate me because I am my father’s son. They hate me because of the favour everyone shows me. They hate me because I am better than them, the quickest to answer and the most highly praised. But do they know I would give anything to escape my father? That I’d rather be the son of a cobbler if it only meant I could have one safe place again?
“Marcus?” The headmaster called. Marcus waved in response. “Marcus, your father sends word that he could not attend, and bids you the best of luck.” The headmaster paused. “Though I suppose that hardly helps now that you’ve already performed. Great poem, by the way. I didn’t think one so young could evoke such strong sorrow. Anyway, Marcellus said something about pressing state business. Something about Lucia, I think. You should probably get home on your own.”
Marcus nodded. So I could have hugged Dio after all.
Marcellus stormed into the Senate proceeding. It didn’t help that they had called this session during his son’s performance. But to not even inform him! They had actually planned for him to be at the public show while they had passed their laws without fear of his veto! These slinking dogs could never be looked away from. While the cats are away, the mice are at play. And it seemed that everywhere he wasn’t mice were.
“I veto!” He shouted, silencing the current Senator’s speech. The Senate looked at him with astonishment, a few Senators and Knights laughing in incredulity before the whole Hall joined in.
Cicero gave a heartfelt smile to his ally in the tribune. “Perhaps our honoured colleague would like to learn what he is vetoing?” And the Senate laughed again before settling down.
Marcellus took his seat among the Knights and his two fellow tribunes who made up the people’s voice. Hundreds of years had gone into the shaping of the Republic. When Tarquin’s line of the godkings had finally been overthrown and Scamander first established itself as the jewel in Illyria’s eye, there had only been the Senate. The Senate had quickly turned to enriching its own classes, however, and robbing from the powerless and the poor. At first a single tribune, elected directly by all Illyrian citizens, with the power to veto any law made by the Senate, seemed sufficient. But soon the Senate found ways to get around the tribune, by staying in session until the tribune slept, or calling hurried sessions while the tribune was away. So one tribune had been replaced by three, so that a watchdog of the people could always be present. Cicero was of the older school of tribunes, a man whose virtue was so outstanding that praise of him had even reached the northern camps of Mania. The third tribune was one of the patrician’s stooges, installed the year before Marcellus had been elected. If the patricians had held two of the three tribuneships, Cicero would have been helpless to stop them. But together the two old men had worked to break the stranglehold of the wealthy few. They had even managed to appoint a series of virtuous Knights, the people’s judges, who were slowly outnumbering the ones who had been naught more than attack dogs under the patricians command. Marcellus now understood how the patricians had seized such power in so short a time. Any Senator who resisted them was quickly charged with any number of accusations, and the Knights were already paid to condemn any enemies of the patricians. The most ridiculous charges were brought upon the most upstanding of Scamander’s citizens, to the point that the city thought it a game patricians played at to invent new and worse crimes for their enemies to be accused of. Theft went to treachery to idolatry to bestiality to consorting with damned spirits. It didn’t matter what the accusation was, the punishment would be the same, exile to one of the million deserted Carian isles, there to await their eventual demise. Marcellus and Cicero had been working to get these men recalled, but the Senate resisted them at every step. In the end, it was not within a tribune’s power to overturn a verdict of the Knights. Sometimes Marcellus felt it wasn’t within a tribune’s power to do anything. He hated those days. He hated coming home with those tired, blank eyes that told his wife that another day of wrangling had resulted in failure and the Senate had won again. Those were the days that he curled quietly into her arms. The days that only Lydra could comfort him through. Sometimes he wished he were fighting the clean battles of sword and shield, but he pushed those desires away. He did not intend to ever leave again. There was already a gulf growing between himself and Marcus, though he couldn’t understand why. If he broke his promise to his son, that schism might never close. He had never fought with Jania. Why couldn’t it have been like that with his sons? But that was nature’s way. A mother always fought with her daughters, a father with his sons. Sheole’s gift to the world.
“Rebellion,” The Senator, a certain Luscius, explained. “Lucia is up in arms against its governor. And the Legion sent to quell the rebellion seems to have been swallowed whole.”
“Legions don’t just disappear.” Marcellus said, lifting an eyebrow in skepticism.
“Well this one has, Marcellus. Perhaps Lucians are a bit tougher than Ogres.”
“Perhaps so.” Marcellus agreed. “But then, I seem to recall defeating them as well.” The Senate laughed at the sting, giving the verbal spar’s triumph to Marcellus. The story of his storming of Taigin was popular legend.
“In any event, this Senate must call for a state of martial law in Lucia.” Luscius recovered.
“You wish to treat Lucia as a conquered province?” Marcellus asked, aghast.
“Not as a conquered province,” Luscius answered. “But as one that still needs conquering. We cannot allow the loss of a Legion to go unpunished.”
Marcellus just looked at the man for a while, at a loss for words. Illyria remained strong so long as its provinces benefited from being a part of it. The Legions did not keep the Republic together. The baths and the roads and the laws and the trading goods and the faith did. If Legions began to march within the state’s borders, treating Lucia as somehow a secondary member of the Republic. . .the whole State would unravel at the seams. Were they really that stupid? Or were they just pure evil, whose only intention was to destroy all things fair?
“You want to start a war.” Marcellus’ dead voice was not a question. “After our first year of peace in fifty, you want to start another war. And this time not with barbarians, but our own people. Illyria’s own children.” It was too insane to actually evoke an emotion.
“The war has already begun. The only question is whether or not this Senate is willing to fight it, or watch all of Maximus’ toil come to naught!”
“If our Legions come as conquerors, despoiling their crops and slaughtering their women and children, do you think Necia will stand for it? It was not long ago when Lucia was their colony. Attacking Lucia is tantamount to attacking Necia itself. How could Scamander survive a single day without Necia’s corn and grain? How could you even think of fighting the children of a Goddess?”
“Perhaps it would be compromising, for Illyria to go against Necia’s wishes?” The Senator asked slyly. Marcellus could feel the ripple of thought moving through the Hall. A trap. The whole thing had been a trap, and he had walked straight into it. His son-in-law a Necian, and Illyria at war with Necia, everything he did from then on as tribune he could be accused of treachery for.
“What’s this, you wish to cancel the debts of all sons of freemen? Only a traitor would propose such a thing. How long have you been in Necia’s pay? How long have you fought for their triumph over your own homeland?”
“What’s this, you wish to give free land to all those willing to move to the frontier? Obviously you only wish to deprive Illyria of all its warriors so that Necia will triumph over us.”
He could already see the speeches they would make. He could already see that any influence he had as a tribune would disappear the moment the war began. The people would be screaming for his blood in the streets. He could not believe the Senate was willing to plunge Illyria into a war simply to destroy a political enemy. The patricians had been more honorable when they had tried to murder him in the streets. A long silence engulfed the Hall, poised, expectant, waiting for the next shoe to drop.
Marcellus broke that silence with a confident voice. “I will go to Lucia.” A murmur went through the assembly.
Luscius smiled, his prey fully enmeshed in his spider’s web. “But Marcellus, you should know a tribune has no authority to deal with foreign powers.”
“I will go to Lucia as Consul, at the head of your Legions. I will go to Lucia as your conqueror.” Marcellus responded calmly. A Consul was appointed by the Senate at the beginning of every war. He had already laid out his terms. He would resign his tribuneship, if the Senate appointed him as Consul. The Senate thought they had won. But Marcellus was resigning now because before long it wouldn’t have mattered anyway. By resigning now in return for being Consul, Marcellus was giving away nothing for something. This war was not over yet.
The Academy was filled with the voice of the Carian headmaster: “At the dawn of creation, when earth was new to fire and water new to air, humans would run on all fours beside the animals. Humans hunted in packs alongside wolves, taking down great mammoths with only teeth and jaw. And soon it was that wolves and humans were indistinguishable, both known simply as dogs. But the Goddesses in their mercy came down to the humans, and taught them to walk on two legs rather than four. And when the humans stood upright, their heads pointed towards the heavens instead of the grimy earth, and they towered over all creatures as kings. And the Goddesses taught man how to trap fire and wear fur, how to store food and how to shape stone. The Goddesses taught man how to tame the seeds and beasts, and how to live in cities instead of packs. And when Man was finally ready, the Goddesses lay with their kings, and beget children divine.”
“Three lines of man did the three Goddesses bless, three empires fair to adorn their green earth. Datia, Necia, Illyria with lineages proud. All others live in shadow. The humans run like dogs through northern snow and southern sand, blind to the Goddess’ starry throne. Barbarians, bandits, and nomads. Ogres, Jinni, and Centaurs, who never tasted of the Goddess’ love, nor suckled at her breast. Bereft of all life’s blessings, knowing only dirt and war.”
“And three demons did look upon these nations fair, and preyed upon them fangs bared. Three gifts to poison life and blacken white. Zakine gave us suffering, that which steals away life and breath for young and old. Zakine brought the fury of storms and the rattling cough. Zakine gave our fields thistles and nettles, briars and weeds. Zakine gave us all things buzzing and biting, all rats and fleas. Torment is his gift, so that curses first adorned Man’s breath and ear. Sheole struck at the human heart, casting us about with fear, shame, guilt, and doubt. Sheole gave us wine and oil and sickly sweets, to soften and deaden Man’s greatest feats. Pride he stole, then freedom chained. For indolence and luxury, cowardice and ignorance, the slave’s virtues are Sheole’s gift. Mahara came last, with hatred in his eye. Strife was his gift, so that humans knew naught but war. Envy he gave, so that one man’s balm was another’s thorn. Jealousy, so that all things praiseworthy were rather blamed. Greed he gave us, to want all things unearned. Mahara sowed amongst us arrogance and scorn. And all the slaver’s tools, be they whip, tax, debt or sword.”
“Divine is man, and yet also beastly. Our blood from the Goddess is perfection, sacred and pure. To the Right it turns, as the arrow of the compass to the northern pole. And in our hearts, where all our blood flows, truth shines forth and virtue is known. The Right and Good we all see, as the wisdom of the Goddess reveals: Our heart rages at injustice. Our soul floats elated upwards at the sight of beauty. Pride and honour is treasured as life’s greatest rewards. All of us have the divine, and thus all of us know the divine. Just as magnets come together of their own volition, through the force of their own nature, does all Good know and love all other Good. The demon’s gifts cannot touch our vision pure, just as they cannot touch the Goddesses our mothers. They fight not with the Goddesses, nor the human vision divine, but with the beasts that remain. Demons conquer all humans that ignore the Goddess and remain their primal dogs. For no virtue is found outside the Goddess’ bound. Sheole’s dog, or Mahara’s, a dog you shall be. As a dog you shall live, within evil’s realm. As a dog you shall see, snout rooted in dust and dirt, never to gaze upon Heaven’s stars. And with dogs you shall range, in a yipping, barking horde. The demon’s gifts enslave only dogs, never shall a Man do wrong. For all of you know the Good, all of you know the difference between foul and fair. Only those who tear out their eyes, who rip off their ears, only those who blind themselves to virtue’s teachings, need a demon fear. Jealousy and greed, envy and arrogance, hatred and scorn, luxury and sloth, indolence and cowardice, shame and guilt, of all these things is Man free. And why is a Man free of these?”
There was a silence as the boys realized Anaxagoras expected an answer. Finally, a hesitant voice piped up from the semicircle around his couch. “Because they are only dogs’ feelings?” Dio asked.
“Correct. But correct how?” Anaxagoras pursued.
Then everyone was silent. Giving an answer would only mean being proven wrong. Dio looked to Marcus, who was usually the first to answer these questions, but Marcus didn’t seem to be listening. Finally, Dio took the mantle back upon his shoulders.
“Because only an animal’s desires would produce them.” Dio answered bravely.
“Ahhh.” Anaxagoras leaned back, a small smile trying to work on the corners of his mouth. “What are people jealous and greedy for?”
“All sorts of things.” Another boy responded, not understanding.
“Yes. Things. People are jealous of things, they are greedy for things. And what are people envious over or arrogant about?”
The crowd was now excited, catching on to the line of thought. “Things!”
“What causes hatred and scorn?”
“What do indolent and luxuriant people live for?”
“What are people afraid of losing?”
“And what are people ashamed or guilty about?”
“And why do they care about things?” Anaxagoras cried out zealously. “Why do they treasure dust and air? Why do they value the world of flux? Why do they care about externals? Because they are dogs, and their noses are still buried in the dirt! The whole starry sky lies burning overhead, all the things divine that the Goddess gave Man, and all they desire is the dirt they roll in!
“How could a Man be jealous of another man’s dirt? A Man who possesses wisdom, virtue, beauty, pride, honor, freedom, love, purity, and all things divine? How could a Man be greedy for dirt, when the stars of sacred things stretch limitless in the sky? How could a Man be afraid of losing dirt? When no power can steal away the things of true value? How could a Man cede away things divine for externals of dust and air, out of fear or guilt or shame? How could a Man hate another man for some external injury, when nothing they do can harm your soul? How could a Man trade beauty and virtue for indolence and luxury, when one fills the heavens with fire and the other litters the ground with garbage? No Man could feel any of these things, because all of them stem from valuing dirt! And only a dog who cannot see the sky would ever desire the dirt his face is buried in!”
Anaxagoras paused a moment to calm his passion. “In these walls are we Men, and our words will bring back your eyes and ears, so that you may see the stars of Heaven once more. Our words will slip away all of evil’s chains, and you will live free, as the Goddess meant. And you will taste of her love once more.” The headmaster looked each of the youths in the eye, measuring their reactions. The children’s eyes were sparkling and their lips pursed with happiness. They felt like they had just made a wonderful discovery. And the best thing was, they felt that they themselves had made it. That they had discovered it on their own. Anaxagoras knew the Goddess must have inspired his lecture today.
“Very well, then. You are dismissed. Make your way safely home, and you may respond and question me on the morrow. Oh, and Marcus, could you bide a moment?” The class streamed about, whispering about what Marcus had done or what questions they had for tomorrow. Eventually the two sat alone under the great roof of the Academy. The building was not walled in, but rather supported by a great many pillars on all sides to let in the sun and air. Nature should never be distant from man, for love of it was the beginning of love for all things.
“Your eyes looked distant today, have you nothing left to learn?” The headmaster rebuked gently.
“It’s not that.” Marcus apologized, trying to dispel distant thoughts. “I was trying to understand something.”
“What were you thinking?” The headmaster kept it secret, but he loved the boys who ignored his thoughts in the pursuit of their own. They were the only ones who truly believed the things he taught, because they arrived to his conclusions on their own path. The rest memorized empty phrases that never reached their hearts nor paused their thoughts, and they left to rejoin the ranks of dogs without another care.
“It’s my father. He promised me, once, that he would never leave me again. I don’t understand why my father broke his promise. And I don’t understand how my father could be a bad man, when I know in my heart he is so good. I don’t understand anything, and I hate it.”
The headmaster smiled warmly. “Only those who understand nothing understand anything.”
Marcus laughed and nodded. “But please, do you know why good people break their promises?”
The headmaster sighed, settling back into his couch. “Things change, Marcus. People change. Circumstances change. The whole world changes, while promises remain the same. And sometimes, sometimes things change so much that those promises are ripped apart, even against the will of those who made them.”
“Then why make a promise? Why make a promise you don’t intend to keep?”
“They do intend to keep them. But they didn’t know how the changes that happened would make their promises impossible. We don’t know the future, Marcus, and that is why it is ridiculous to pretend to know how we will act in the future. Promises are just more chains, they bind people into actions they no longer choose out of wisdom but only duty. What if Marcellus had kept his promise, and remained? Then there would be war in Lucia, perhaps even war with Necia, and Illyria without its greatest Consul to protect it. What would Marcellus do here? What purpose would he serve? Virtue lies in aligning the power one has to the good one seeks. For the measure of the quality of a person is found not in the weight of good they accomplish but in the harmony of their alignment with the Good. Take a poor farmer and a rich usurer. The poor farmer with his small plot of land gives his whole life to virtue. All the energy he has, he pours into providing for the lives of others. The farmer has a tiny potential to do good, so fleeting and small that you could never notice it. But that farmer gave us everything. He is in harmony with the divine guidance the Goddess has given us.
"Now look at the usurer: How much wealth he owns! How much power he has, to give people the means to success and prosperity. His potential is enormous, but how does he exhaust it? Not in doing good, but in adorning his home with silver and gold. By eating ten times his share, like some sort of pig, vomiting the excess in a feat of pure wastefulness. By drinking wine and wearing silk and lending money to those who have the sweetest tongues and flatteries. That usurer may do more good than the farmer, simply because even the slightest portion of his potential outweighs the farmer’s whole. But who is the better person, Marcus? Who would you rather live beside?”
“The farmer.” Marcus affirmed.
“Then take your father. Of all the people in Illyria, he has the potential to do the greatest good. He is a great man. Your father is the greatest man in all the Republic. But what if he squandered that potential by staying in this comfortable and safe city while the Legions march to war? What if your father watched Illyria become broken apart and weak and fearful when his leadership could have made it triumphant? Would he be a good person then?”
“No.” Marcus admitted quietly.
“That is why good people break their promises, Marcus. Because your father knew that being good meant devoting all his power to the Good. When he made you that promise, he thought that meant staying in this city and with his family. It was true, when he made you that promise. But now things have changed, and now the right thing to do is something else. That is why the only things you can promise are internal, not external.”
“Because one only has control of one’s own soul, nothing else.” Marcus began to understand. “The world is flux and change, and none have power over it. That is why freedom is a state of mind, a state of the soul, and not external. That is why a slave can be free, and the free slaves.”
“Exactly. And the only things you can control, the only things that you can predict, is the state of your own soul. The only promise you can keep is a promise concerning your own soul, not any action, but only your state of mind. Actions are dependant on circumstances, but thoughts are your own. Marcellus was wrong to promise an action, when no mortal can know the future. But he was right to break that promise, knowing that the promise was wrong to have been made. Only in breaking it is your father a good man.”
Marcus nodded, his heart becoming relieved and happy with the knowledge that chaos had once again become order in the light of wisdom. “How will I ever be as wise as you, Anaxagoras?”
“Well, you could start by listening to my lectures.” He teased. “And after that, it is only a matter of following the good the Goddess has placed inside of you. You knew Marcellus was good, even when he was doing something you thought was bad, didn’t you?”
“That is the Goddess in you. If you listen to the Goddess, you will always know the Good. Wisdom is only that. It is only finding the Goddess inside of you, and heeding her call.”
“I will listen tomorrow, I pro—“ Then Marcus laughed. “I can’t promise I will. But I promise to try to be wise. And I promise that I love your words and they feel true in my heart. So almost certainly, I will listen to your lecture tomorrow.”
Anaxagoras laughed and smiled warmly in admiration. “If you learn this quickly, soon I will have nothing left to teach. Now go home. Your poor mother is alone, now. Your brother in the Legion and your sister in her own home and your father a Consul once more. It isn’t well for her to be alone.”
Marcus nodded. “But isn’t my presence or absence just another external that shouldn’t make any difference to her one way or another?”
“Just go, you parrot! And don’t talk to me again until they’re your own words!” And Marcus went home, smiling all the way. He was happy because he was free. Father was gone, and he was free.
Marcellus looked at the hamlet his Legion was about to enter. The tenth had been disbanded, its veterans gaining the well-deserved retirement of a quiet life. As tribune, he had fought for every legionnaire to receive a free farmstead for his family and home. The Republic had almost doubled in size, and yet all the Patricians seemed to believe that there wasn’t enough land for even Illyria’s bravest citizens to own a simple farm. The all-too-familiar rage welled up inside of him, but he pushed it down. That was over, now. He had tried to be a good tribune. But now he was a Consul, and he knew he was a great Consul. That rage could no longer be directed at his own countrymen. A Consul’s hatred lay only in Illyria’s enemies. Vale shifted restlessly and Marcellus slapped it almost reflexively, only afterwards noticing the man who had drawn up beside him.
“Too much smoke for chimneys.” Fabius said. “The third village we’ve crossed now empty or sacked. I’ve never seen this sort of desolation on Illyrian soil.”
“I won’t let this continue.” Marcellus answered. “I’ve come to make peace, not war. The Goddess knows there’s already enough war here.”
“Who is there to make peace with?” Fabius watched the hamlet burn angrily. “Everyone’s dead or gone. No one dares feed the Legion, even when we pay for it, for fear of reprisal from the rebels. The rivers are befouled, the earth scorched. Lucia is going up in flames, burning itself for the sake of its own freedom.”
“I’ve never seen its like.” Marcellus marveled. “What was possibly done to these people, that they’d rather live like this than as they had before? This is the bravery of desperation. The courage of those driven beyond all recourse.”
“And what happened to the First? An entire Legion vanished, with not a trace of battle and not a single deserter found. Did they just continue marching into the Sea?”
“Perhaps these villagers will know something.” Marcellus counseled patiently.
“Oh I’m sure they do.” Fabius snorted. “And I’m sure half of them are the very same rebels this Legion has been sent to quell. But when we come in, they’ll all be simple farmers too stupid to know a thing, or even know why their village is a smoking ruin and all their crops gone though it’s early summer.”
“There must be a head to all this. Only a leader could make this happen. Only a great man could cause such zealotry in all these peasants and craftsmen. All we have to do is find him, Fabius. We’re not chasing a ghost. And we’ve told everyone we’ve met that our intention is to return peace and order to this troubled land. Eventually we will ferret him out, like a snake from his hole. If he thinks the Legion will suffer from what he’s done, he must know how many millions will starve come winter if he does not make peace soon. Anyone brave enough to rebel against Illyria and defeat an entire legion must be smart enough to see this. A man graced by the Goddess is not graced in one virtue but in all.”
“You see some great tactician lurking behind every burnt barn and every slaughtered cow. Perhaps you’re right. But I see what my eyes lay before me, naught but chaos and anarchy. Who’s to say Lucia is not simply at the prey of bandits and raiders? Who’s to say it isn’t Jinni or Ogres? There is no design to this!” Fabius blew out his mustaches in disgust. “Pfwaw. Such a waste.”
“I forgot this was your homeland, Fabius. Where the wild horses run free.” Marcellus watched the hamlet with a longer sigh. Pain meant nothing until it touched a loved one.
“The finest metalworkers in all the world, Marcellus. Silver and gold almost melting into the desired shape. I never thought I would live to see this. I thought Maximus had brought the light to Lucia.”
“We will keep the light aflame.” Marcellus promised. “I will not let Illyria lose Lucia. Not after we lost so many to gain it.”
“Pfwaw.” Fabius said. “Who’s to say it isn’t Necia? Nothing regular, I’m sure, but there have been enough Necian pirates under Jinni flags.”
“Necia lost Lucia to the barbarians long before we claimed it for Illyria. It would be ridiculous for them to claim it now.”
“But Necia still knows that Lucia flows with their blood. A land once gained is always felt to be rightfully one’s own. They won’t forget that in a thousand years.”
“Then we would do best to make peace with Lucia, so that the Necians look upon one Illyria, united and strong. War is a vulture that haunts only the weak.”
“Your ghost had better reveal himself, then. Or there will be nothing left to make peace with.” The two horses jockeyed for position as they entered at the head of their Legion into the abandoned village. Marcellus slapped his horse again, then gave up and dismounted, handing the reins off without even knowing who took them. The villagers would be less intimidated if he weren’t on horseback anyway.
“Fan out, find what you can. Centurions, I want everyone to be within sight at all times. Do you understand? I want all the food and goods to be taken immediately to the central square. If you catch any looters, they shall be flogged.”
The Centurions assented and broke off into search parties for survivors and supplies. The Legion wasn’t exactly hungry, but they could all have done with some ham and eggs and chicken about now. If this continued, the men would have to eat the barley meant for the horses. Maybe that was how the First disappeared. Marcellus made his own way through the central avenue, watching peasants poke at burnt homes and jealously hoard their chickens. Dogs were running through the streets in packs, already half-wild, barking at the oncoming Legion and fighting for what food was left to find. Dogs hardly made for good eating, but it seemed that they and rats were the only things still alive in this land. Perhaps he should order the dogs butchered next village. Marcellus took a note of it, hardly watching where he was going as worries filled his head.
Choosing the first woman who looked to have a clear head at random, Marcellus walked up to her in a stately fashion to denote his harmlessness and took out a gold coin. “You’ve fallen upon harsh times, mistress. I hope this will come of some use to you.”
She looked at the coin as though it were some sort of viper. “And what will I do when you aren’t here and they discover this coin? They will think you paid me for betraying them. I think I would have harsher times then.”
Marcellus cursed inwardly because she was right. “I’m sorry but I must ask you these things. Who are they? Why are they doing this to you? Why are you afraid of them when an entire Legion is here to protect you?”
“That’s what the last Legion thought.” The girl snipped.
“Do you know of the First? Anything at all? Do you know what happened to them?”
She shook her head. “Even if I knew, I would not tell you. And I don’t know. They vanished, just like how they vanish. The ghost’s army.”
“Who is this ghost?” Marcellus implored.
She shook her head again. “I see you are a kind man, Consul. But we will not help you. Those of us who don’t agree with the Ghost are too afraid to disagree with him. And I will let you wonder which of those two groups I lay in. And another thing is you can’t win. Illyria can’t win no matter how many Legions she sends, they will all vanish one by one just like the First. Just like yours is going to. I think I see the Eagle over there. . .yes, the Sixth Legion. A fine Legion you have brought here to die, Consul.”
“But you can’t be serious!” Marcellus insisted. “How can rebels, bandits, or whatever they are defeat a Legion? The Legion is the strongest army in all the world!”
“I will tell you a story, Consul.” The girl seemed amused. “Once I watched a group of boys boxing in the square. There were a lot of boys watching and a lot of girls besides. The whole village was excited, cheering for one man’s son or another. Well, these children, they would stand there, hitting each other back and forth, beating each other silly. The tallest or the oldest or the biggest one would last a bit longer and win the match, all bruised and bloody but still the one standing. Everyone thought these boys were so brave.”
“And then a little boy, he couldn’t have been more than twelve, after the biggest and tallest and strongest boy had won, he asked if he could fight next. Everyone laughed and told the boy that he would have his chance in a couple years. But the boy insisted, and the champion was all too willing. So they let the child fight, figuring he would go down after the first hit and learn a lesson in humility as well. They would have been right, except the boy wasn’t hit. For every swing of the older boy, the younger boy would skip aside or under or backwards. He didn’t even try to hit the older boy, knowing he wasn’t strong enough to make a difference. And the older boy kept getting angrier and swinging more wildly, the younger boy skipping aside, until the older boy slipped and fell from his own momentum. The whole crowd watched in horror. But all the little boy did was nod, as if in answer to a question he had asked himself. The little boy said: ‘I see now.’ That was all he said, and then he went back home without another look at the crowd or the champion he’d beaten.”
Marcellus watched the girl closely, attentively, taking in every word she said. He thought he understood how the First Legion had been destroyed. And for the first time in his life, he wondered if he were outmatched.
Publius emerged from a street alley dragging a sooty and terrified villager after him. "Father! Guess who I just dug up out of his hole?"
Marcellus looked at the short man whose eyes darted back and forth like some weasel still trying to find a way to escape. "Our Ghost?" Marcellus asked caustically.
"Better!" Publius shouted. "The rat who gave him birth! Our Governor!"
“Let me get this straight,” Marcellus rubbed his forehead wearily. The smoke from the tent was making his eyes ache, and his back was screaming in complaint from sitting in a chair too many hours to count. Marcellus wondered what a life free of pain would have felt like. He guessed it wouldn’t have felt like anything at all. “You, as governor, independent of any orders from the Senate, declared this region a state of rebellion eight months ago?”
“Yes, that’s right.” The weasel licked his lips, sweat glistening on his brow. “The Necians, you see—“
“Yes, yes. I know about the Necians.” Don’t let a liar get away with telling the same tale twice. Marcellus thought. If he has to think up a new lie every time, eventually his lies will trip over each other. There was something incredibly angering when he listened to a lie. The weasel knew he was lying, the weasel even knew that Marcellus knew he was lying. For some reason, the weasel thought that was far preferable to Marcellus knowing the truth. At least this way Marcellus didn’t know why he was lying. Except Marcellus had spent five hours figuring that out, and he was pretty sure he knew that part as well.
“So, having intercepted secret communications between the rebels and the Necians, you saw fit to declare the province a state of rebellion, without informing the Senate.”
“Yes, well, messengers were sent, but the rebels—“
“Oh yes. Of course the rebels were interrupting all communications. Except, it seems, that the rebels did not interrupt these.” Marcellus waved a pile of letters asking for military assistance and supplies.
“I cannot explain it.” The governor laughed nervously.
“Perhaps I could.” Marcellus smiled widely, flashing his teeth. “You raised taxes, let’s see, for the past three years you’ve been assigned here. Heavy tariffs on foreign goods, requisition of half the agricultural production outright, plus, it seems, thousands of laws on what exactly people can do with whatever they had left.”
“Do not interrupt my explanation, please.” Marcus smiled. “These exorbitant taxes were then used to raise, it seems, a private Legion of mercenaries. All the metalworkers and weaponsmiths were employed by the State by force of law to arm and equip these mercenaries.”
“Please, sir, let me ex—“
“No, no, no. Let me explain for you. I truly think I understand quite well now.” Marcellus’ smile was so large it made his jaw ache. “This private army, better equipped and supplied than any of Illyria’s legions, at the expense of Lucia’s trading, agriculture, and finest crafts, was meant to unite with the common resentment of the newly conquered Ogres to rise up in rebellion against Illyria.”
“I would never--!” The weasel choked in outrage. “How dare you--?”
“Wait, it gets better.” Marcellus broke through his sputtering. “You had a wonderful plan, didn’t you governor? You were going to play both sides. Your mercenaries were ordered to pose as Legionnaires, rampaging through the country for rapine and pillage. Then once Lucia revolted, you could declare a state of rebellion and wield complete authority over the province. When the Legions came to quell the revolt, you would declare yourself the champion of the People and unite the mercenaries and revolutionaries under a single banner. Lucia would well be under way to regain its independence, except this time with you as king.”
“I refuse to listen to this.” The weasel stood up shakily. “You have no right—“
“Sit down, weasel!” Marcellus shouted, it was the shout he used to command the Legion in the din of battle. The governor sat down before he even realized he had. Then he looked down at his seat in surprise, gulped, and tried to stand up again. Bernadine had already crossed the tent and put a firm hand on the weasel’s skinny shoulder. Imprisoned by Marcellus’ piercing eyes and Bernadine’s immovable arm, the governor could only watch with horror his approaching doom.
“But something went wrong, didn’t it? As a Consul, you quickly learn that things go wrong with plans.” A flash of pain went through Marcellus’ eyes, a flash of memory too painful to remember. “Your pet Legion caught a liking to rape and pillage, and when it was time to call them back, they had already become feral dogs, rabid dogs beyond any control. You learn another thing with age, governor: People can’t pretend to be dogs for long, before they become them. They sold their souls to Mahara, and Mahara does not give them back. The revolt did happen, but something else went wrong. Someone, somewhere, turned the disorganized rabble into a force stronger than your mercenaries. Not only did he crush the roving bandits, but when you decided to cut your losses and call in the First, he crushed that as well. Now you are desperate to be part of Illyria again, because that is the only thing between you and the hellfire that this Ghost promised to deliver you to. It seems you forgot that Illyria hates traitors as much as commoners hate tyrants. That was your last mistake, governor. I am through with you.”
“You cannot--!” The weasel gasped. “Not without law--!”
“Is this not a state of rebellion? As ranking officer, I have the authority to conduct this war as best I see fit. And I predict your corpse will have a favorable impact on the populace’s sentiment for peace. I only wish I could bring you back to life, so that I could kill you a hundred thousand times in return for every mother and child whose blood lies on your hands. Perhaps Illyria will find a suitable punishment for you in Hell.”
That morning, villagers and legionnaires alike paused in their rounds, wrenching eyes away from a sight none wished to comprehend. Fabius and Marcellus watched it with stony eyes, long inured to the worst horrors sight could bring. The crucified traitor stood atop the highest standing roof, facing the empty and overgrown fields his taxes had wrought.
“Do you think they will see?” Fabius mused. “Eventually the birds and bugs will steal away his face.”
“I think they have seen our every movement since we entered Lucia.” Marcellus smiled wryly. “For once, I’m glad.”
“Do you think they will come? If what you believe is true. . .I don’t see how they could forgive us. They were being starved to death, worked as slaves, denied all the goods that enrich life. . .then marauded by the army meant to protect them. By the Goddess, Marcus, if I were them I would rather die living than live on dying.”
“People want to live, no matter how painful.” Marcus said calmly, watching the feeble twitches of the former governor. If he stopped moving, the birds would peck out his eyes. But whenever he moved, the nails would reopen the wounds in his wrists. He deserved it. He deserved the worst the human mind could conceive. “The war they are fighting. . .they are only fighting because they think death is certain anyway. When they see him, they will find hope again. They will want to live again, even if their Ghost doesn’t want them to. They’ll demand to have a chance at life again.”
“It could be that they are just bandits. Your mercenaries gone rabid. Wouldn’t that be a simpler explanation?”
“It doesn’t feel right.” Marcellus said. “But when I think of a Ghost, that feels right. I know I’m right, I just don’t know that I know. My instincts reach answers before they can be reached by my mind, and sometimes that is the difference between life and death. Like when I feel like turning around, just to be sure no one is behind me. It doesn’t have to make sense, I just turn around.”
Fabius had stopped listening, however, stroking his moustache with a look of detached curiosity. Marcellus didn’t bother to feel annoyed, knowing Fabius would only ignore him for good reason. Instead he just turned to look at whatever Fabius had noticed. A small boy with bright eyes was picking his way carefully through the street. As though he had memorized a route and was devoting his full concentration sticking to it.
“Eyes like the morning sun.” Fabius whistled. “You were right, Marcellus. Bandits never inspire eyes like that.” The boy didn’t seem to have noticed the crucified governor, walking straight up to the two generals with a look of fixed determination. Not a determination one wore to mask fear, but one set out to accomplish his mission. He walked up to Marcellus, craning his neck to look in the Consul’s eye. “Are you Marcellus?” He asked.
Marcellus nodded. He supposed it was hardly a secret who the Consul of the Sixth Legion was. It shouldn’t surprise him that the Ghost knew his name. It didn’t seem fair, however, that he had no name for his opponent.
“Will you come with me?” The boy asked, each word spoken clearly, checking to make sure the recital matched the words he had memorized. Fabius shook his head slightly. Let me go. Marcellus saw. The two might as well have been able to read each other’s minds. Marcellus shook his head in return. We have to play it his way.
“At least take a guard.” Fabius finally protested. “Just because it’s obvious doesn’t make it any less a trap.”
“Killing me wouldn’t achieve anything.” Marcellus said. “Except a war Lucia knows it cannot win.”
“So that’s it? He beckons, and you come running?” Fabius challenged.
“That’s just about it.” Marcellus responded lightly, not taking the bait. He crouched down to look the boy at the same level. A moment later his back screamed in protest, the rest of his muscles following suit. Marcellus waited for the pain to fade to the background. He had to remember these things, or someday the pain wouldn’t fade away. Another time. Another worry. Every problem can wait its turn.
“Would you like to ride my horse?” He asked the boy gently. Someday this child would grow up with the knowledge that an Illyrian had been kind to him. Such a little thing, but it might be enough to change his entire life. This child would not grow up hating Illyria as merciless conquerors, he would not grow up to be the source of yet another, endless cycle of war, because he would always remember that there were kind Illyrians, too.
The boy eyed Marcellus, then at the towering horse, with wariness. Marcellus smiled. “Think how proud your mother will be, to see her son so brave.” The boy’s eyes widened in surprise, wondering how Marcellus knew he had a mother. It was such a comical look that Marcellus could not help but smile in earnest. His sons were too old to be amused by. He missed that. But now they were old enough to be challenging and inspiring. Qualities that far surpassed the ones that came before. Finally the boy nodded, and Marcellus nodded in return. He stood—slowly—and picked the boy up under his arms, tossing him onto Vale’s back. Vale gave Marcellus a glare, but was tired of getting slapped for the day and did nothing more. Marcellus nodded at the horse in appreciation. Maybe it had finally learned who was the master of their partnership.
“What should I tell the marshals?” Fabius asked.
“Whatever you want.” Marcellus waived the matter aside as negligible. “When I return, it won’t matter anyway. I will return with peace.” The young boy clung to Marcellus’ waist as he kicked Vale into a canter. He doubted he would have to go far, but he wanted to return before nightfall to keep the Legion from worrying. The last thing he needed was a rescue mission.
“What’s your name, boy?” Marcellus asked kindly.
The boy seemed to be deciding between terror and exaltation. “Varrus.” He answered.
“A strong name.” Marcellus praised. An Illyrian name. “Where am I going, Varrus?”
The boy snapped to attention. “You’ll want to make for those woods. Do you see them?”
Marcellus answered by turning his horse for the woods. “Will they be surprised?”
“No.” Varrus replied confidently. “Father’s never—“ Then his mouth clamped shut. Marcellus could feel the boy’s murderous stare on his back, though he couldn’t see it. You made me think you were a good man, but then you used my feelings to steal my secrets. Marcellus couldn’t explain to this boy that he hadn’t meant to steal anyone’s secrets. Denying it would only make the boy more assured that it was true. Why couldn’t anything be easy? But then, why should Varrus trust him? He had lied to his own son. He had no right to expect anyone’s trust. There was a sinking feeling in his chest, his heart crushed with the weight of his own sins. Everything I do goes wrong. Everything I touch withers and dies. Why should anyone trust me with anything? From there on, Varrus only gave him short commands to turn left or right. He seemed to appreciate the silence. Perhaps the mistake was not irredeemable after all.
“You have to dismount here.” The boy explained, shakily trying to get off on his own.
Marcellus dismounted and held out his arms to help the boy. “Here.” Varrus gave him a blank look and jumped off on his own. The horse snorted in protest. Vale probably hated him more than anyone. Marcellus sighed and dropped his arms. Everything goes wrong. A gloomy cast came over his face.
“You have to wear this.” Varrus explained, pulling out a blindfold. Marcellus quirked an eyebrow questioningly. “It’s for your safety as well. We don’t let people live if they see us.” Marcellus nodded and took the blindfold. “Take my hand.” Varrus commanded. His small hand was cold to the touch, guiding him the next hundred paces.
“Back so soon?” A gruff man asked. “Well, I suppose we’ll have to round up the general.”
“Where is he?” Marcellus asked. He refused to be treated as an object just because he couldn’t see.
“Wouldn’t you like to know?” Another voice said, and a crowd began laughing in agreement.
“I would like to know. That is why I asked.” Marcellus responded. He thought there were maybe twenty men standing in front of him. Ridiculous. The general was running around with only twenty men as protection? There camp had to be nearby. But then again, his scouts had never found trace of an armed camp anywhere near. But twenty men could camp on the Legion’s doorstep and they would never know. It scared Marcellus because he had never fought such an enemy. Always Marcellus could see into his opponent’s mind, use his own tactics against him, lure him into stupid mistakes. He could make the enemy attack him when he wanted, how he wanted, where he wanted. Because he understood the enemy. He didn’t understand anything about this general. He wouldn’t ever attack. Or defend. He was fighting a bloodless war. The blindfold around his eyes was nothing to how blind he felt planning this campaign.
“I’m sorry,” a clean voice came, perhaps a marshal just arriving at the scene. “We don’t know ourselves. A messenger came this morning and the general said he had to take care of some business.”
“So I should just stand here blindfolded until he arrives?” Marcellus asked.
“That won’t be necessary.” A voice came from behind. Something oddly familiar about it. He tried to place the voice, but it could fit too many men. It sounded Lucian. Marcellus turned around to confront his Ghost. “Is this what you call courtesy? Asking for me alone and blindfolded?”
“It isn’t, at that.” The Lucian admitted. “I could take off the blindfold if you wish.”
“Varrus here felt it was for my own safety.” Marcellus replied.
The Lucian laughed. “Did he, now?”
“I’m sorry,” Varrus apologized to the general.
“There is something you should know, Marcellus. Once upon a time, the First Legion surrendered to our army. They had been starving in their encampment for a month straight, not able to send out any men for forage or supplies. Whoever they sent, we lined their bodies up at their gate in the morning. They were brave men, we thought they should have a proper burial amongst their friends.”
“I thank you for that.” Marcellus said coldly.
“I came to accept their surrender, and the Consul and his marshals attacked me. They thought that if only I died, they could still somehow prevail. I had to kill all eight of them.”
“They should not have broken truce.” Marcellus said coldly.
“Perhaps you are thinking the same thing.” The Lucian continued.
“I am not.” Marcellus replied.
“I had some business to take care of. Bandits terrorizing the countryside. The more you kill, the more seem to appear to take their place.” The general continued. Marcellus knew that voice. Knew it from somewhere. He tried to think of all the Lucians he had ever met. It was no good. He was too old to remember such things. “This is the legacy Illyria brought me. Why should I want peace with it?”
“If you wish to negotiate, you will take off my blindfold.” Marcellus answered.
“How can I trust you?” The Lucian asked.
“If you wish, my son serves in this legion. He will be your safekeeping.” Marcellus’ voice had become very flat.
“And if you believe my life is worth your son’s?”
“Obviously you have never had a son.”
There was a short silence, and then the blindfold was taken off Marcellus’ face. The Lucian stood with his hand cupped around Varrus’ at his side. “He will be nine this summer.”
Marcellus’ eyes widened in recognition. “Sertorius.” All the different traces came together with the flashing brilliance of insight. Of course it was Sertorius. Of course it had to have been him all along. He couldn’t believe how long it had taken him. His only excuse was a rotting brain with a dusty memory.
“Hello, Marcellus.” Sertorius actually smiled warmly. “It has been a long time.”
“Too long, apparently.” Marcellus agreed. His face was clamped in the gloomy mask of battle, but there was a certain amount of relief in seeing the marshal alive again.
“But here, let me make up for earlier.” Sertorius begged. “Come to dinner with us. I have so much to tell you.”
“You cannot hope I will join your rebellion.” Marcellus stated firmly.
Sertorius waved that aside as irrelevant, guiding him to the dinner table. “How long has it been, Consul? Fifteen years since we stormed the walls of Taigin?”
Marcellus sat down to eat. Whatever Sertorius and he had shared, that was over now. Today they were enemies, and Sertorius must know that. Except, today they were both allies in their search for peace. So perhaps Sertorius was doing well after all. “I recall you told Maximus to his face in front of the entire Legion that it was the greatest military blunder in history.”
Sertorius laughed. “Maximus! Ah, when I saw the fire in his eyes after that, I was afraid he would set me aflame with sheer anger.”
“Open disrespect tears down the authority of the Consul. Many people could have died for the lack of confidence you inspired. Many more people could have died if that lack of confidence had cost us defeat.”
“You knew it was a blunder.” Sertorius parried. “We all knew, but he wouldn’t listen.”
“I did not voice my objections in front of the Legion.” Marcellus pointed out judiciously.
“Which is why I stand here today, and you stand there, Maximus’ proud successor.”
“Who can know why anyone stands anywhere on any day?” Marcellus asked. “Only Illyria could see a design to my life, much less the lives of everyone together. I seek only to align myself with Her will.”
“I don’t see any design to Lucia in flames.” Sertorius countered. “And if you come as a conqueror at the head of Legions ‘aligned with Her will’, then She is only my enemy.”
“I come as no conqueror.” Marcellus said. “I came for peace, and I am the only one who came for peace. If you do not deal with me, Sertorius, Lucia will be buried in Illyrian arms.”
“After Maximus dismissed me from the Legion to carry out his conquest of the world—you know he would have tried had he only lived long enough—I tried to understand some things, Marcellus. I thought about how the Legions fought, and why they won. And I thought about how the barbarians fought, and why they lost. I suppose Fabius is still with you? Well, no matter. I studied you two the most, and I came to a startling realization.”
“What is that?”
“Wars are incredibly stupid.” Sertorius laughed, eating his food without another care. “What were we fighting for? Wealth? Land? People?”
“For the glory of Illyria, and the betterment of all those under Her wing.” Marcellus supplied helpfully.
“Yes yes that’s all very well.” Sertorius scoffed. “But once I figured out that wars are stupid, I finally understood why people fight wars the way they do.”
“How?” Marcellus prompted.
“War is a game.” Sertorius answered. “The players enjoy it for the sake of playing. The soldiers love it for the sake of fighting. War is a game played by a very few people who enjoy it. Like swimming. Or wrestling. Or boxing. Just another game.”
“I deny that.” Marcellus said simply.
“It surprised me at first too.” Sertorius forgave. “But only after I realized that did all the rest make sense. In your world, Marcellus, all truth bends around a falsehood, warping and twisting your whole life out of place. Out of alignment, you would say. And it would be so obvious to you, except that you need to believe the falsehood to be true. Why? Because only that falsehood gives value and purpose to your life. You have to believe you were fighting for something. If you don’t, the gaping void of truth would open up and devour you for all the suffering you’ve caused. If you ever admitted you did it for love of the game, then you would know your heart blacker than the worst killer. Blacker a thousand times over. The worst sinner this world has ever known.”
“Sertorius.” Marcellus snapped. “I did not come here for you to chatter.”
“But I will chatter, sir.” Sertorius glared. “Because I want you to understand this. Not just for you, but for all the other innocents that will eventually fall beneath your blade. I want you to understand this so that no more Lucias will cake your boots with blood and ashes.”
“You think this is my fault?” Marcellus looked amazed.
“Yours and all those who think like you!” Sertorius accused passionately. “You and all your bloody soldiers and commanders and their bloody games.”
“I did not come here to be insulted.”
“Then shut up and just listen! You wish to align yourself with the Goddess? Well what stops the Goddess from showing you Truth through me? What stops the Goddess from granting your prayer by showing you the way you need to take? Are you really so sure that everything you do is right? Are you really that arrogant?”
Marcellus began to listen.
“Things begin to make sense one you realize war is a game. Why did Maximus lay siege to Taigin for two years when the rest of Lucia fell in less than one? We could have gone around, left Taigin sitting alone surrounded and helpless. We all knew we should go around.”
“It was a mistake.” Marcellus explained.
“But it wasn’t.” Sertorius answered emphatically. “I finally realized that it was actually the exact right thing to do—if you viewed war as a game. Was Maximus going to let Taigin beat him? Was Maximus the Great going to lose a single battle? Was he going to retreat though he had the strongest army in the world? Was he going to let Taigin win? Not Maximus. He knew it was a game, and he played to win. No matter what it cost. He didn’t care about the land or the people or the Goddess or anything. He just lived to play. Think about it: we all admired Maximus’ devotion to the campaign. He never lost himself in the luxury afforded by his victories. He would send all the spoils back to Scamander, eating poorly, dressing poorly, and living poorly without a care for all the riches we gained. He hardly wasted a week before he had found another battle, another campaign, another march to make. Once Lucia was conquered, he simply turned the Legion around and headed for Mania. He would have kept marching north until he reached the horizon. None of it mattered to him, the land or the people or the wealth. Just the battle. He just loved the battle.”
“Perhaps that was true of Maximus.” Marcellus admitted. It did make sense, however gratingly.
“No, Marcellus, the only difference is that Maximus was not a hypocrite. He did not hide behind causes and words and screens like the rest of you. It is true of all of you, but Maximus is the one commander who understood. Did you ever hear him say why we were conquering Lucia? Did he ever make a speech about how much better things would be after the war? Did he ever talk about bringing light to the darkness, or the Goddess’ blood into the Ogres? He never said a word of it, because he knew it was all lies you fed yourself to keep the blood from your hands.”
“How is it a lie?” Marcellus challenged.
“Because of the nature of war.” Sertorius said. “I studied the nature of war, and anyone else who does will see the exact same thing. Not the conduct of war, not the strategy of war, the nature. Ask yourself, what is war?”
“Armed conflict.” Marcellus supplied.
Sertorius laughed. “Yes, I suppose it is. A very few armed people conflicting with a very few armed opponents. There are probably a hundred and fifty million people between the three nations, and who knows how many barbarians. We’ll give Illyria fifty million, just to be simple. Our Legions are ten thousand men. All together, counting the levies and the auxiliaries, Illyria might marshal a million men. And we both know most of them would be worth less than the supplies it costs to support them. Really, the ten legions, the hundred thousand standing army, is the whole of Illyria’s warring populace.”
“What of it?” Marcellus prompted. For some reason he was interested, though he hoped Sertorius would not notice. It was the passion in the man’s eyes. It was because Marcellus had always remembered Sertorius to be a genius. In the end, it was because he respected the man and thus also his opinions. And for some reason, what he said made sense. He wanted to know what Sertorius wanted to say.
“That is one out of every five hundred people who ever fight.” Sertorius went on. “In any particular war, a handful determine the fate of the entire nation. A few thousand determine the victory or defeat of all Lucia. Of all Mania. Of all Illyria. All one hundred thousand will never see battle. Only a few Legions at best, and most of the people in any given Legion will never actually fight either. Most of them will simply run if they are losing, or pursue if they are winning, without ever lifting a hand. A handful, Marcellus, are the only people who ever fight in any war. The rest of them are just imaginary numbers. It was never so obvious as when I fought the First Legion. A few hundred at best were brave enough to fight us, the rest huddled inside the walls and refused to face their opponent. Even though we were starving them, they would not come out. Even when they had me basically alone with the entire Legion when I came to accept their surrender—after I killed the eight commanders, the rest of the Legion would not fight. Instead they surrendered, like the battle had never even happened. Only eight people in the entire Legion would actually fight.”
Marcellus didn’t understand what he was saying. So what if only a few people fought? It was like proving a point that had nothing to do with the point you wanted to prove. Building a staircase to the sky.
“If war does all the things you believe—bring light to the darkness, glorify Illyria, better people’s lives. If war is the most powerful and dramatic tool for good, why is it that only a handful of people, a few thousand, out of one hundred and fifty million, actually use it?”
“As you said, war is too expensive to field large armies.”
“No no no.” Sertorius sighed. “Here, why don’t women fight?”
“Some do.” Marcellus would not be trapped so easily.
“Exactly!” Sertorius exclaimed. “Which women fight, Sertorius? A very few whose mindset is nominal for war. Perhaps you would say, a very few who have the military virtues—stoicism, courage, loyalty?”
“Yes, the few who are natural warriors.” Marcellus still didn’t see where Sertorius was going.
“You could say these few women are better suited to war than the loom?” Marcellus nodded.
“That these women would actually be more at home on the battlefield?” Marcellus nodded.
“That they are proud and happy to be warriors?” Marcellus paused, then nodded.
“Are all men proud and happy to be warriors?” Marcellus shook his head.
“So again only some men are natural warriors?” Marcellus nodded.
“And these natural warriors, of both sexes, all share a sense of well-being in their natural setting? Just as a natural weaver would enjoy weaving? Or a natural cobbler would enjoy cobbling?” Marcellus nodded.
“Who fights in a battle? Those who were conscripted? The cowardly, the mild, the effeminate?” Marcellus shook his head.
“So regardless of who you dress up to fight, only the natural warriors end up fighting?”
“Now you have gone too far.” Marcellus objected. “Many people will fight if they are forced to, though they are not naturally suited to it.”
“So anyone will fight if they are forced to? Even the mildest women and children?”
“If they are forced to, yes. Or else they’ll die.”
“So if they don’t fight, it is because they aren’t forced to?” Marcellus finally nodded.
“And in war, only the natural warriors end up fighting?”
“In most wars.” Marcellus finally admitted.
“So they don’t fight because they are forced to?” Marcellus nodded.
“So they fight because they want to?”
“Someone has to fight.” Marcellus objected. “If they don’t, then others would be forced to, only they wouldn’t fight as well. They are fighting so that others aren’t forced to.”
Sertorius paused as if taken aback. Well, maybe Sertorius didn’t know where he was going either.
“Let’s look at this another way.” Sertorius sighed. “What do people want?”
“As many things as the stars.” Marcellus responded.
“To love and be loved.” Sertorius stated authoritatively.
“But that’s just one among many—“
“No, Marcellus. It is the one thing above all. Our reason for living. Imagine yourself severed from every tie you have with the world, and every hope of ever forming another. Does anyone wish to live after that? Do you just replace love with one thing or another, or is all life nothing but dust and ashes without love to lend it flavor?”
“I don’t see how I could be severed from all ties—“
“Just imagine.” Sertorius snapped. “It would be worse than death! To live alone and unloved, with anything else you desire, is worse than dying loving and loved, with nothing else but that.”
“What does this have to do with anything?” Marcellus finally objected.
“So why does someone have to fight?” Sertorius asked. “That’s my point, Marcellus.”
“To protect what they need.”
“Yes, which is why anyone will fight when forced.” Sertorius treated that as negligible. “But in war the stakes are almost never that high. In most wars, only the warriors bother to fight. Which proves the war was not that essential to win in the first place. For most people, it wouldn’t matter who won or lost, because they’re happy weaving under any flag. They’re happy cobbling under any law. They’re happy loving and being loved regardless of who wins the war.”
“This is ridiculous. If wars were meaningless, then why is all history defined by war?”
“Great sweeping wars, wars upon wars upon wars until the dawn of time.” Sertorius said. “We have been fighting wars since the beginning, and we still will be until the end. And it wouldn’t make any difference who won which war when for Joe the weaver or Mac the cobbler.”
“When I marched into Scamander, the whole million cheered me as a hero.” Marcellus pointed out.
“Just like the millions cheer on the winners of the Games? Just like the wreaths given to the best boxer? Or swimmer? Or wrestler? There are only a few wrestlers, but a great many spectators of wrestling. Only a few warriors, but a great many who love to watch the game.”
“This is ridiculous. People fight to get what they want, which could be wealth, land, people, or anything under the sun. Other people fight to protect what they have, and so the war begins. In every case, a war will be an aggressor and a defender. Not two sportsmen. No one fights for the fun of it.”
“Everyone but natural warriors achieves their desires, ‘get what they want’, without fighting.” Sertorius replied. “The reason why warriors can’t is because fighting is what they actually want.”
“The whole nation fights by arming and training its best and brightest to achieve what is best for the whole nation. We are only the nation’s sword, but all the people wield it.”
“I will tell you what an entire nation looks like when it’s at war.” Sertorius fumed. He stood up from the dinner table with no food left on his plate. “This, my friend, is real war.” He gestured at his camp. “This is how people fight when they are forced to, when it is no longer a game.”
“You are the defender.” Marcellus acknowledged.
“We fight because we have to. We fight because otherwise we would have died. But what are you here to fight for?”
“I’m not here to fight at all.” Marcellus sighed wearily.
“Let’s be plain, Consul. I have been fighting for my homeland for the past year. First it was mercenaries, then bandits, then legionnaires. Now more legionnaires, though I’ve managed to turn the First Legion against the bandits. I’m running out of strength, I’m running out of ability, and there are always more Legions. We both know this is a war I cannot win.”
“This is a war neither of us can win.” Marcellus agreed.
“You’re missing the point, Marcellus. Lucia cannot defeat all of Illyria, but Illyria will still be defeated. I have razed the crops and slaughtered the livestock, fouled the water and salted the land, to kill you and any Legions that follow. Lucia will still live, though.”
“As a memory of valor?” Marcellus scoffed. “No life is worse than death. Stop now and crops can still be planted for the winter. You can still turn back, Sertorius.”
“Necia has promised to supply us through the winter, and to continue supplying us until we are free.” Sertorius’ eyes took on a gleam of triumph. “Necia is willing to equip and supply our army, and support our people, so long as we bleed Illyria white.”
Marcellus only stared for a moment. “You must know what this means.”
“I know what they think it means.” Sertorius countered. “There is an Illyrian fable, of a rabbit screaming and cornered by a wolf. A bear hears the screams and comes to eat the rabbit himself, and the wolf and bear fight it out while the rabbit skips away.”
“Invite a bear to stop a wolf, yes. But then what? A lion to stop a bear? And who will defeat your lion?” Marcellus asked hotly. “Through all history, involving a foreign power into a domestic struggle has resulted in the invasion of that foreign power and the doom of both sides. When brothers quarrel they know better than to involve the neighbors. When neighbors quarrel with brothers, the brothers come together despite their differences. That is survival. That is wisdom, the wisdom all people know and follow in all their lives. And yet you have defied it all, thrown it all away just for the slightest chance of victory?”
“I have done the best I can.” Sertorius shrugged. “Perhaps another could have done better. I don’t care if Necia sees this as a chance to conquer Illyria. It’s just another war. It would have happened sooner or later, because both of your hearts are dominated by the lust for it. If you weren’t fighting Necia tomorrow, it would be Datia. If not Datia, then the frontier. And if no other land, then you’ll just fight yourself. You will fight all your life, just like Maximus. The wars will never end because people don’t want them to. And every time you’ll make up some reason for why this war has to be fought, and every time the women and children will suffer and die to satisfy your games.”
“This is the voice of despair.” Marcellus realized. “This is Zakine’s hymn. And you? You are a dog of sorrow.”
Sertorius laughed. “Your Legion dies if I but give the word, and you insult me?”
“The truth is only an insult if the insult is true.”
“Let me give you truth.” Sertorius returned. “If this invasion of Lucia continues, I will be forced to call upon Necian aid. If you do not march back the way you came, you, your son, and your Legion will die. If you don’t stop Illyria from sending more legions, this entire world will be bathed in blood. It will make Lucia look like a drop in an ocean. You came for peace? Good. Except you thought peace would mean my surrender. Well here are the terms of your surrender: Lucia is a province of Illyria, well and good. The First Legion remains here to keep the peace, under my Consulship. That shouldn’t be a problem considering their Consul is dead. All of the laws that govern Lucia are revoked until a popular assembly can form a constitution which Illyria must respect as the law of the land. Any reprisals in trading agreements or otherwise will be seen as an act of war and a violation of our treaty.”
“Illyrian law is supreme throughout Illyria. Taxes must be paid.” Marcellus required.
“Lucia is willing to comply to the same laws as Illyria’s citizens. We wish for equal standing and equal protection. This is a republic, not an empire. We are a state, not a province. We are not a conquered tributary state. We are a free people who are part of the republic from our own free will.”
“Agreed.” Marcellus said. The two might have stood silently for a minute after that word.
“You can’t be serious.” Sertorius finally protested. “The Senate will never ratify such a treaty.”
“A Consul’s treaty stands until and unless the Senate revokes it.” Marcellus cited. “And such a revocation by law also counts as an order of resignation for such a Consul. If the Senate does not ratify this treaty, they will do so without me to handle the consequences. Either way you win, Sertorius.”
Sertorius looked at him for a long time. “Why are you doing this? Risking your own neck for Lucia?”
Marcellus sighed. “Illyria can’t afford a war with Necia. I am willing to sign any treaty you give me to prevent that. And if there is anyone intelligent left in the Senate, they will do the same.”
“Then it seems we have found peace after all.” Sertorius still sounded incredulous. Marcellus laughed at the word. Peace. If peace meant juggling five hot coals with bare hands in a granary full of dry wheat aching to burst into flame, then yes. They’d found peace after all.
“Tell me something,” Marcellus asked. “Did you really defeat eight men alone?”
“I heard you defeated ten while protecting Maximus.”
“If ‘defeat’ means huddling beneath your shield under blows like rainfall.” Marcellus grinned. The scars snaking across his back twinged in memory.
“Well it helps to fight men who haven’t eaten in a month, too.” Sertorius smiled wryly. The two clasped wrists with the friendship of days long past and the respect of the present. Two great men struggling to bring sanity to an insane world, and more than likely both knowing the attempt was doomed from the start. But that didn’t stop them from trying.
“The histories don’t have to know that, though.” Sertorius winked. And Marcellus laughed.
Jania hummed a tune as she dipped the rag reverently into the milk jar. It was a wordless melody, which didn’t bother to change or skip. When it came time to hum a new bar, one was as good as another, and if she couldn’t think of a new one she just repeated the old. Music was an eternal presence in her home, and it was the constant comfort of her baby and secretly even herself. It didn’t have to be a grand performance, it just had to be. So long as there was music, nothing could be all that wrong with the world. She brought the rag out after it had gathered only a small amount of milk, let it drip until it was ready to be moved, and then brought the small white cloth to the life cradled in her arms. The baby looked at her weakly, not capable of concentration on any object for longer than a moment. Then his eyes would drift away, lost in a blur of fuzzy light, never seeing something and knowing it to be seen. Never knowing that the world was made of separate objects and people, incapable of differentiating them. The baby was happy, in a way only Jania could feel. She knew the baby liked her humming, liked being in her arms. It was so small Jania didn’t even feel its weight. She wouldn’t have even noticed if the baby had disappeared until she looked down again. She tilted the baby’s head gently, then let the tiny end of the rag touch its lips. It was too weak to suckle, to hold on and to bring the milk out under its own power. But it still felt the rag’s wet touch, and still let the milk drip in bit by bit. It took hours, but Jania did not notice the time pass. However long it took to feed her baby. That was all that mattered. That the baby was still alive. That she had kept it alive and it hadn’t died yet even though it was so weak it made her cry just to look at it.
The baby made a small sound, a sort of coo. It moved an arm a bit to touch her shirt. The slightest feather’s breath of a touch reached her breast beneath. Jania hummed encouragingly, dipping the rag back into the milk. The baby was still alive, so it could still live. No one could dispute that logic. She refused to let her baby die. It had hurt too much, she had given too much, for the baby to die now. Illyria, mother of us all, grant a mother’s prayer. Only that it lives. I ask only that my baby lives another day. Another hour. I will pray every hour just to have another hour.
“It moved.” Publius marveled. And Jania remembered there was a world outside of her baby and her. “He’s been so quiet.”
“He’s like that.” Jania replied quietly. There was a rush of happiness that someone else had recognized that the baby really was alive. The baby moved, and someone noticed. My baby just changed another person’s life. My baby makes an impact.
“How long does he lie there?” Publius was quickly growing restless with the monotony. He had only been here an hour, and he was already tired of it. Jania wondered how he would feel if she told him this was her life. Probably he would feel sorry for her. But then, he wasn’t a mother coaxing life into her tiny baby.
“He doesn’t notice.” She explained. “He can’t tell. He’s always lying somewhere.” Jania dipped the rag back into Joshua’s lips. She had given Jacob a son. He’d been so proud. So relieved. So very scared. She had been terrified. It had taken so long, and hurt so much. She thought she would bleed to death. She had bled so much. Like a river. She hadn’t known she had that much blood. Her body was still frail, her cheeks sunken and her body pale. But the light was still in her eyes. That beautiful light that came out from her face and filled the entire room. That blue light that still pierced Jacob’s heart whenever he looked upon her. She was alive, and Joshua was alive, so all was well. She would have bled twice as much for Illyria, so long as the end result was the granting of her prayer.
“But doesn’t he. . .I don’t know. . .don’t you ever want to put him down? Go do something?”
“I don’t mind.” She answered with a tiny smile. The baby’s eyes were fluttering, ready to sleep. It was probably tired from feeding. But she imagined he was less tired than yesterday. She imagined how much stronger he was now. How strong he would someday be. How her little Joshua would grow up to be Jacob’s delight, and he wouldn’t just look at it and leave the room with that awful silent look.
“But surely a slave could care for it. You liked to weave in the fall. I remember you used to weave such pretty blankets.” Publius was searching for some good work that could validate her existence. Jania wondered if that’s what boys thought. That unless you were doing something, you weren’t really alive. Maybe that’s why they always caused trouble, just so that they could have something to do. To Jania, Publius was the being without true existence. He was attached to no one. There was no one awaiting his return, no babe of his in someone’s arms. How could he live all alone? That wasn’t life.
“When are you going to marry, Publius?” Jania asked, rocking the baby ever so slightly to sleep. It was always quiet, so she didn’t have to deal with all the crying and squealing most mother’s complained about. Jania would have given anything. . .she would have cut off both her arms. . .if only she could complain about how loud her baby cried. But she didn’t want to think about that.
“Marry?” Publius stopped pacing, startled.
“Yes, Publius. You’re older than me. When do you plan to marry?”
“I can’t marry.” Publius responded, as though the very thought had not occurred to him. “I don’t even know anyone.”
“Why don’t you meet someone?” She pursued.
“I don’t have time for. . .” He made a vague gesture that included everything. “Besides, what good would I be to anyone? I’d just always be gone like father. Or dead. What use is a dead husband to anyone? She’d just have lost her chance to find a real home.”
“So why do you fight? Why not quit, and make a real home?”
“I have to fight.” Publius stated.
“But what about a family?”
“The Legion is my family.”
“But what about--?”
“The Legion is my family.” He repeated emphatically. Jania sighed. Maybe boys just couldn’t understand. Why did they live for things that weren’t even real? They could be so happy if they just lived for each other. It was stupid.
“Where’s Jacob?” Publius finally asked, beginning to pace again.
“At sea, of course.” Jania answered. Maybe it was true, that daughters grew up wishing to marry their fathers. Jacob had certainly mastered father’s ability to never be home. It hurt him being at home. She thought maybe it hurt him to look at her and see how weak she was. She thought it hurt him most how weak his baby was. But she wished he would come back anyway. She hated telling people he was away, he was away, that yes everything was fine but no he wasn’t here. She hated not having him at night. Hated how he didn’t care how it hurt her when he was gone most of all.
“I haven’t even seen him since the wedding.” Publius remarked.
“And what would you say if he were here?” Jania asked, smiling sweetly.
Publius shrugged. “Something nice.”
“I’ll tell him that.” Jania promised. “When next he drops in for a visit, I’ll tell him he should be here more often for when you drop in for a visit, because—gosh!--you have something nice to say.”
Publius gave her an odd look. “Are you angry with me?”
“No, brother.” Jania sighed. “Not you.”
“Is he treating you well?” Publius was suddenly alert.
“Of course he is.” Jania said firmly. “Ah, just forgive a lonely wife’s heart. I did not mean to scare you. Please, I’m just tired.” She did not bother to explain the sort of tired she was. He wouldn’t have understood.
“Of course.” Publius said, waving it away. “If you’re tired, though—“ He said, seeing his escape. Asking permission to escape. That was the way with families. They never chose to be together, but they felt guilty if they weren’t. Like they were required to care. It was stupid. If he was only here out of some sense of owing it to her, how was that supposed to make her feel any better? Now he would resent her for forcing him to do something he didn’t want to do. To feel something he didn’t feel. He would resent her for making him live a lie. That’s why he was pacing like a caged animal. He was trapped in a costume he hated wearing, and he wanted to be free of it and return to himself. This visitor was a fake Publius, and all he wanted was to be real again. Free to be himself. He was asking her if he could drop the charade and just leave. Jania wondered if anyone enjoyed being with her anymore. She looked down at her little Joshua. There was a love unquestionably pure. He just had to live.
Just then Marcellus came crashing through the door, his old body animated with a sense of disaster. Jania stood up shielding her baby. Publius grabbed for his sword with an oath.
“Publius, get your stuff. We’re going.” He nodded to Jania without really noticing her.
“What is it?” Publius managed as he yanked his coat over his arms.
“Sertorius is dead. Necia claims we killed him to reinstall the old rules. They’re already marching on Lucia, and being greeted as liberators.”
“They killed him? Are they mad?” Publius sputtered.
“Illyria knows it was hard enough getting the Senate not to start the war themselves.” Marcellus spoke with a sense of incredible fatigue. “At least we’ll be the defender. Sertorius can’t begrudge me that.” Marcellus said the last part to himself.
“War with Necia, father?” Jania stood very still. “And what will we eat?”
“Perhaps Mania has enough grain. It’s no matter, our House will not starve.”
“And my husband?” She asked.
“Perhaps it were best if you do not mention him.” Marcellus advised. Jania nodded, cursing Mahara all the while. The two left in a flash, suddenly important people doing important things, with no time left for their family. Why was Necia attacking Illyria? Jania asked herself as she stood alone with her baby asleep at her bosom. Here she stood, the wife of a Necian, with his babe in her arms. Why were they attacking her? She hadn’t done anything to them. Yet now Necia would try to kill her, if not by the sword then by starvation. And most of all by choking out the city they would kill all the old and infirm, all the young children who couldn’t afford to go without food. That reminded her to find a slave to watch over the baby as he slept. But the problem dogged her from the bath to the bed. What was Necia’s goal? To increase its holdings? To grow? Was it really easier to grow at Illyria’s expense, than to just grow what they already had? And what did it mean to own people who weren’t even loyal? Surely if Necia wanted more slaves they could just take the Jinni. Or did they want the land, so that they could replace Illyrians with Necians? But that was ridiculous. Necia made more food than their population twice over, they were the leading exporter of corn and wheat in the whole world. What did they need more land for if they could already support themselves? Perhaps they wanted the wealth of Lucia’s smithies and horses without needing to trade for it. But then, wouldn’t they still trade for it within their own people? The smiths and horse trainers would still have to be paid for their work, Necian or Illyrian. Or were they growing for Necia’s sake? To give their goddess sway over Illyria? But the three goddesses had worked together to form the earth. To praise one was to praise the other. What did it matter which name one called upon? Maybe they thought Illyria held vast riches and wished to take them, so that fine jewelry could adorn the bodies of their ladies? Were they really warring over whose women wore the finer jewelry? She wondered if all the Necian wives had urged their husbands to risk their lives for that jewelry. She wondered if the Necian wives had called upon their men to leave families an assemblage of widows and orphans so that they could wear more stones. Necia had much to gain, in wealth and land and glory and slaves, if only Illyria did not defend itself. But surely they knew that Illyria’s Legions were the strongest in the world? That father had used only one to butcher forty thousand Ogres in an hour?
Jania lay in bed, fingering a band of red cloth restlessly. Necia could gain wealth and land and people and glory and fame in conquering Illyria. The only reason that stopped anyone from going to war was if it were too expensive. A defender had to defend, with everything, over any little thing. Because only by showing that war was too expensive would people ever stop warring. If Necia had kidnapped a single Illyrian girl, millions of Illyrian men would go to war and die for her. Only that irrational response was enough to dissuade the wolves and jackals of the world that they should seek an easier meal elsewhere. A defender was never to blame for a war. If Illyria had surrendered Lucia, it would only have had to fight for itself the next season, and this time at a much worse disadvantage. And if it surrendered itself totally without a fight, Necia would ravage and spoil the land and the people without a single care because, after all, they weren’t Necians. Surrender was suicide. Those left alive would be enslaved, and all their future generations would be slaves and wretches until they were willing to go to war for their freedom. Only the willingness to fight for freedom could preserve freedom.
But then, for the past fifty years Illyria had been conquering Lucia and Mania from the Ogres. Indeed, the entire history of Illyria was growth through conquest. Their military prowess was the pride of the nation. It was the source of Illyria’s wealth, their undefeatable legions always stretching the frontier. Had they been evil in going to war? Should they have remained a tiny city, prey for some other predator? For if one was not conquering one was being conquered. All the peoples of the world wished to grow, and none of them cared for one another. Scamander would simply have lost its role as the center of Illyria. Some other people, some other nation, would be the capital now. And perhaps that nation would be less just and less free than the republic Illyria had granted all its people. Illyria had conquered people, but had always given them justice and freedom, so that the conquered in the space of a generation were the next wave of Illyria’s conquerors. How could Illyria be decried as evil for its wars? When its wars had created something so great for so many? History was always the strong replacing the weak. It was always the progression of the strong to stronger. If there was no war, humanity would still live like the dogs of the dawntime, hunting deer with snapping jaws through the winter snow. If there was no method for the strong to inherit what their strength could gain, then humanity could never have been stronger than the animals they had ran beside. The only bad war, then, was if an aggressor were not stronger than the defender. Only then was the war a waste. And the only way to condemn the war as bad was if the defender had already won the war. All wars were wise until proven foolish.
Jania smiled at that, and knew all her thinking had led her to a conclusion she knew to be a farce. She must have forgotten something. There must be some other way for the strong to conquer than war. But it was too late to go back again and start over. She wished Jacob were here to talk to. She wished he were here so they could fall asleep in each other’s arms and not have to worry about the world and its wars. And with thoughts of him on her mind, she drifted to sleep.
Jania felt the wood beneath her bare feet before she felt the familiar sway and rush of the sea. She had not been on a ship since her pregnancy, but it was a wondrous feeling. Of sitting still and yet moving like the wind. She had stood at the prow and laughed while the seawater drenched her in its swells. She had stood at the prow, the water plastering her clothing to her body, and enjoyed feeling his eyes on her. The power of the ship to conquer the oceans, the power of her body to seize his heart, it was all the same delicious warmth that kept her laughing with delight. Now she was finally back, though she couldn’t remember how or why. It didn’t matter. She was on the ship, which meant Jacob must have wanted to be with her again. Which meant Jacob must be somewhere near. She relearned how to walk on the swaying wooden deck, going to the fore where Jacob mainly stood watching. He was a merchant, not a sailor, but all the best merchants knew the sea as well as they knew all the prices of goods in all the harbors of the world. The best merchants were friends with the crews that delivered those goods. Jacob had tried to explain that sailing was the best part of a merchant’s life, not the buying and selling ‘inbetween.’ But days and days of the same boundless ocean sounded so dull. And there he was, standing like usual, but now he was wearing armour and holding a spear. It was shocking. She had never imagined Jacob holding a spear.
“Jacob, what are you doing with that?” She shouted, making her way beside him. She wanted to hug him, but was afraid of the cold hard metal. He looked at her with sad eyes.
“Don’t tell me they impressed you? Oh, don’t tell me that!” She cried. Maybe that’s why he wasn’t back. Maybe they had stolen her husband away and now she would only see him again as some corpse on the battlefield. Jacob just looked grimly ahead.
“Jacob you mustn’t fight us! My brother is fighting for Illyria! I couldn’t bear it if you fought us! Jacob, just run away. Run back to me. Please, where is your loyalty? Your heart is mine! You must come back with me.” Jacob just shook his head.
“But why? Don’t you love me? Why won’t you bed with me any more?” She shrieked, not understanding, afraid, losing her husband and not knowing the words that would bring him back.
“Because I would kill you.” He finally said, those sad eyes looking at her frail body again.
“No!” She shrieked. “No, Jacob, I want your babies! Jacob, Jacob, you must give me babies. I had Joshua! I can do it. I’m not barren!”
“Joshua is not my baby.” Jacob answered sadly. “Look, he was only a doll.” He pointed to the small body laying on the deck. Jania rushed to gather Joshua up, to prove that he was alive. But it was just rags stuffed with cotton. Joshua had only been a doll all along.
“See? Your baby died in birth. We just gave you a doll so you wouldn’t be sad.” Jacob seized Joshua from her arms and threw him into the sea, its limp form falling without protest into the endless sea.
A shiver ran up her entire body. “NOOOOOOOOO!” And then she was awake. And tears began cascading down her cheeks as she ran to check on her baby.
Hamil tested the weight of the steel in his hand, holding the hilt loosely as he spun the sword around. He could think of a dozen fables based on Lucian steel. The metal was a secret, in the smelting and the forging, and trade was restricted to Illyria. Lucian steel was said to cut through shields and swords as though they weren’t even there. To smash rocks and heads in a single blow. Of course, Datian steel was supposedly even sharper. Sharp enough to part silk simply by dropping it across the blade’s edge. They claimed to forge it from metal that fell from the sky, a gift from the Goddess herself. Obviously just a myth to hide their secret. Necia was lucky to wield even iron. The southern desert and the shoreline were hardly good for mining. Though he could hardly claim Necia had not given her own blessings. The most fertile river in the world. Gold and ivory and slaves from across the desert in return for salt. Salt! He could just walk to the sea and scoop up salt. And for that Necia gained the wealth of a land esteemed to be built of gold. Blessed Necia, we will get the steel for ourselves. We owe you everything as it is. The steel was only a little heavier than a good bronze sword. Iron was softer than bronze, but Lucia had found some secret to it. At least it was too expensive to make any real difference. Though now that Lucia was his he wished it were cheap. Wishes were idle fancy. He would win with what he had. And what he had was the finest light infantry in the world. And now the finest cavalry. He had twenty five thousand riders of his own, and Lucia was known for its horses. His army was the fastest warfare had seen. Legions marched fast, but they were heavy infantry and even their endurance couldn’t match his mobility. He would run circles around them and devour them whole. He had to get the Legions fully engaged with his phalanx for his cavalry to take them on the flanks. His phalanxes were seasoned veterans, but so were the legions. It was all a matter of finding the right ground. An open plain where the phalanxes could hold still and the horses could ride freely. The ground would decide the victor. And Hamil had the speed to decide the ground.
“General Hamil, a messenger.” The captain reported. Hamil stopped toying with the sword and looked up attentively.
“Sir.” The messenger bowed his head. “Mercenaries are as thick as fleas here. It’s as though all of Lucia is armed and seasoned for battle. We had to start turning them away for lack of supplies.”
“How many?” Hamil demanded. Good news always evaporated with hard numbers.
“Counting the allied cavalry, the skirmishers, and the bandits. . .altogether five hundred thousand. And we could make it a million if we knew what to do with them.”
Hamil nodded. All of Lucia really was up in arms. And for some reason against Illyria and not Necia. Good luck. But Fortune never stayed on one side for long. “How many horse?” Hamil insisted. Foot would be of little use with the tactics he planned. But he needed every horse.
“Twenty five thousand mounted men, sir. We took every one we could find.”
Hamil nodded again. Could fifty thousand horse conquer a nation of thirty million? It was a good start, at least. The real question was whether fifty thousand horse could conquer a hundred thousand legionnaires. All the other numbers were dross. The rest were just fodder, smoke on the wind. Fifty thousand horse wouldn’t be any use at all against a city’s walls. Somehow he would have to lure the Legions out into the open, and crush them. Except surely Marcellus would know that, and stay within his walls. Unless Marcellus thought he could get the better of him. Hamil knew of only one general that might have been better than him, but he was long dead. If Marcellus was foolish enough to meet him on the open plain, this war could be easier than crushing Jinni. At least the Jinni were smart enough to fade into the desert before he neared. How could he lure Marcellus into leaving Scamander’s walls? How could he lure the Legions onto the open plain? He had a million mercenary bandits to throw away, and no way to supply them. And he needed to lure the Legions onto the open plain.
“Soldier. I need for you to go back to the recruiting posts, to send the general word, that all crimes are pardoned and all mercenaries welcome to join the liberation army. We will pay in gold for any horseman, double the rate. Foot are welcome to live off the land.”
“Sir?” The captain questioned.
“It is no sin on our hands, captain. Just Lucians run amok. Necians would never do such a thing.” Hamil explained. It was very important to not be responsible for what the mercenaries did.
“Of course, sir.” The captain stepped down.
Hamil didn’t care how many women would be raped or how many villages would be burned because of these words. It was all just a puzzle to him. A wonderful puzzle in his head that he was solving piece by piece. The patricians owned the Senate. They would not let their wealthy estates of the countryside go burned and lost without response. All they would see is the gold lost without a single fight, and their greed would demand that Illyria lose everything just to save that gold. And Marcellus would be too proud to hide behind those walls when Illyria was being ravaged under his nose. Hamil was the only person who would fight with his head. Their passion made them his puppets. It didn’t matter what the mercenaries did to lure them out. All that mattered is that they would come out, and he would destroy them. He was the best, because he knew war was a puzzle to be solved. Nothing more, nothing less. Caring about things only led to stupid mistakes.
A million fools to either side. A hundred thousand legionnaires. Fifty thousand horse. Twenty thousand phalanx infantry. And twenty elephants. All the pieces sitting on the board. And it all depended on how they were moved. Hamil took his new sword and left his field tent for his new horse. He had to gather up his cavalry and put the same mettle into them that he had put into his phalanxes. Give them honor, and they will seek to uphold that honor. That was the key. He would give his cavalry the respect that would make them ride off a cliff for him to keep it. Passions were so easy to harness. He need only beckon, and they came.
“I don’t like it.” Fabius shouted over the thunder. “It’s no good. We should retreat before the horse gets around us.”
“We gave them all of Lucia!” Marcellus shouted back. “And now you want me to give up all of Illyria too? What should we do, surrender the whole nation outside of Scamander?”
“Look!” A bolt of lightning startled the two horses, the old men expertly keeping them still. “They’re cutting around us again! This isn’t a matter of strategy, Marcellus! This is tactics. If we don’t retreat they’ll have a beeline straight to Scamander.”
“Hamil doesn’t want Scamander!” Marcellus replied. “He wants us to keep giving ground by threatening Scamander!”
“It’s too risky!” Fabius shouted back. “Even if it’s a faint, we can’t risk it! If the horse cuts between Scamander and the Legions, it will be just us against the whole damn army!”
“They’re stretched thin, Fabius! That’s the only way they can cover so much ground. We could just hit them and pop the encirclement. We don’t have to escape it!”
“What are we hitting? They’ll just go around us! And then they’ll be between us and our supplies, and we’d have to attack them. Don’t you see? It’s bait! They’re paying us a few thousand men to fight on ground of their choosing!” Another peal of thunder interrupted the conversation, the mud slopping at the horse’s hooves.
“Their horse won’t move any faster than foot in this weather.” Marcellus said after the thunder had pealed away. “They won’t be able to make these wide loops, if we just press the fight now.”
“Press the fight now and you win a sortie! It’s a sacrificial pawn! He’s waiting for us to get out of position to take a stupid pawn, so that next he can have a fork between Scamander and the Legions!”
“He isn’t threatening Scamander!” Marcellus shouted in frustration. “Hamil is playing us for a fool. He’s winning the war by reputation alone! I can beat him, Fabius. I just have to actually fight!”
“This isn’t about who’s the better general!” Fabius retorted. “This is a war between Necia and Illyria! Not between you! No one cares which of you is better!” Legionnaires marched past the shouting Consuls trying not to notice the discord. The Sixth and the Tenth and the Fifth, thirty thousand men, along with fifty thousand auxiliaries, and they didn’t know which way they were supposed to be marching.
“I know that!” Marcellus said hotly. “The Legions need a victory, Fabius. We can’t just keep retreating, or they’ll start thinking we can’t win!”
“Everyone knows how you work, Marcellus! Everyone knows that you don’t commit until you can win! Every time we retreat they have more faith that when we do fight it will be because we will win!”
“Look, I’m taking the Tenth and I’m attacking tomorrow morning! If you don’t like it, you can take the Sixth and keep running until you’re back in the walls of Scamander! We can’t wait this war out. They have far better supplies than us, and their armies are ravaging all the crops we do have! This war has to be won on the field!”
“This war will be lost if we fight on the field!”
“This war will be lost if we don’t fight!” The two were shouting into each other’s faces, their horses almost rubbing against each other.
“Both of you shut up.” Muscianus commanded. “And conduct yourself like Consuls, for the love of the Goddess.”
“You stay out of this.” Marcellus turned his wrath on the junior Consul. This boy was dressing him down? He had done well enough at securing the frontier from the barbarians, but he’d never seen a real battle. It frightened Marcellus how small Illyria’s true army had become. Of the ten Legions, the First was lost, the three to the east were too far away to do them any good, and three legions were more numbers on paper than real. He had left those ceremonial soldiers in Scamander. Enough numbers to scare Hamil, so long as they never had to see battle. All in all, three Legions were the only men Illyria could rely upon to defeat the entire Necian invasion. But then, the entire Necian invasion only seemed to have forty thousand regulars of its own. It was like two giants striking each other with blades of grass. Just the image of that was enough to put Marcellus back into good humour. So he let Muscianus off and turned back to the conversation.
“Now just wait!” Muscianus retorted. The storm was hardly the best place for a strategy session, so the Consul grabbed both their arms and dragged them to his tent. The older men grumbled threats, but let themselves be led out of the rain. When had Muscianus been putting up a tent in the middle of a march anyway? Apparently he’d seen the opportunity when the argument began. “Here!” Muscianus snapped as he unrolled his precious maps. “Let’s just look at the situation and stop arguing about intentions.” Mountain chains snaked down the heart of Illyria and into Mania, Caria just a lump of bumps without an inch of farmland between. Which was why Caria had taken to the sea and traded its olives, the only crop that grew well in that land. Why Illyria had never bothered with cavalry but only the versatile infantry to fight for its land. Why all the bronze and iron that could be wished was to be found in Illyria. Those mountains determined the entire history and culture of the nation. Just as the fertile plains and the southern deserts gave the soul of Necia. Or how the river valleys separated by mountains gave birth to Datia’s great cities, and its empire. Place a man in a situation, and he will adapt to it. Place a million men in a place, and they will adapt to it.
Marcellus wondered about that. Were the Ogres, then, just as divine as the three nations? If they had been given this land, what would they have done with it? If we had been given their forests and rocks, what would have become of us? And what of the desert riders, the Jinni? Would they have been children of the Goddess if they had lived on the fertile plains? Were the Centaurs barbaric and cruel because the life on the steppe required it?
“Marcellus!” Muscianus finally shouted in frustration.
“What?” Marcellus came back to the map slowly.
“Are you listening? Illyria is overrun by bandits, rebels, or what have you. Somewhere in this haystack is the needle of Hamil’s army. It’s cover, see? He’s hiding behind a million men for us to make a mistake. He’s probably encamped just a few miles away, waiting for us to do something stupid.”
“What, so we sit paralyzed out of fear and let the million bandits rage uncrossed?”
“How can we risk the whole war to scoop up a few bandits? It’s like plugging a hole in a dike that’s leaking in a thousand different places across thousands of miles. Hamil could be out riding in Caria right now under sunny skies.”
“We know he isn’t going to attack Scamander, it would just be pinning himself between the walls and the Legions.” Marcellus insisted. “We know he isn’t going to wander off into nowhere when our Legions lay between him and his supply line from Lucia. He’s here, somewhere. We’re his target. Defeat us and win the war by default. The only conquest he wants is this very army. He’s here.”
“Then why force a battle? When he has the speed to attack whenever the opportunity is ripe?”
“Because losing a battle now is preferable to winning later. If we wait ten years to win this war, there won’t be any Illyria left to save.”
“We can’t force this battle, Marcellus.”
“When can we? When there’s no mud to slow the horses? When there’s no food to feed the legions?” The argument ran and swam and wandered in circles, over and over. And because no Consul had authority over the next, the argument could run forever and it would never go anywhere. And the men marched through the storm in circles, with no one to tell them where to go.
If Hamil didn’t know better, he would have thought that the Illyrians were more confused than his army. It went forwards and backwards, up and down, grew larger and shrunk, in a fashion beyond any attempt at design. If the scouts could even tell the difference between the Legions and the auxiliaries. Villages and manors fought out their own tiny wars with land starved rebels and vengeful bandits. There was talk of slave uprisings, but who could know? Slaves were as often armed to protect their homes as spoil them. There were so many men, and the country was so large! Scouts could ride day after day and see nothing but men marching along the roads, and who could tell friend from foe? Perhaps a million men were marching to Illyria’s aid. Perhaps refugees were escaping the chaos of the bandits. Perhaps the bandits were the refugees. Nor would the land stay still! Rising up into mountains, falling down into chasms and cliffs and gulleys and arroyos and valleys and a million different words Necia had never even needed. His whole army would spend one day getting lost in some canyon, and the next fleeing out of it, afraid for their lives that the Illyrians would catch their mistake and box them in. Hamil should have died ten times over wandering through this land. He would’ve traded a thousand men for a decent map, ten thousand men. Just one map that showed mountains where there were mountains and passes where there were passes.
Then there were supplies. His wagons had broken down every day, as if every wheel was destined to strike every rock in its possible vicinity. The elephants were sick or starving. It was impossible to feed them enough, and it was too blasted cold. He’d be lucky if they ever saw battle, much less did anything. He had never thought winter was this cold. Snow built up in the shadows, wind shot through the bone. And the locals thought it mild compared to the ‘true’ north. What on earth did Necia want with such a benighted land? It was all rocks and ice. How could anyone live here? Hamil was suddenly glad that Necia had made the earth, for apparently only Necians lived on a decent patch of it. Truly, Datia of the water and air had given her people the grand rivers, the irrigation networks that stretched a thousand miles and fed the richest cities. Had Illyria, then, granted any special gift of life to her followers? He looked to the left and the right of him at the rugged land that sickened his elephants and broke his wagons. Supplies spent months to reach his haggard troops, and needed an army of their own to escort the food through the teeming mass of bandits and beggars. He could as easily ‘live off the land’ as the elephants. It was winter, and everyone was hungry, and there was no food on the stalk or vine. He had watched wolves fight to the death over a hunted stag that morning. He had watched, wishing he had brought a bow or a sling, to claim the stag for his own. Seventy thousand men! How could they live off the land? There were already a million men trying the same, in a land that was barely alive! And yet how could the food be carried across continents in any amount sufficient, in any way fast enough, for seventy thousand men a day? Seventy thousand men, fifty thousand horses, and ten elephants a day. And half the day spent trying to repair the wagons that were the only possible way to carry enough food to feed them the other half. If he waited too long, his army would evaporate into the air. He had thought to bring a small enough army to stop it, but the army had grown of its own accord, and now nature would shrink it back down with its cruel mastery. He had to fight before that day. Before his soldiers and horses were too weak and hungry and cold to fight. The Illyrians would suffer any hardship to save their homes, but what was his army there for? They were fighting for nothing. Their homes were sturdy and strong and full of wives and children far, far away. And they were fighting here in the cold and the rain and the rocks for nothing. Only the gods knew why. There was no sense to any of it.
It came as no surprise to him, then, when the scout came riding upon his frothing steed, even in the snow, shouting that the battle had already begun. He thought of all the battles he studied at Pallasandria, and wondered how his posterity would study this one. Two perfectly disciplined armies wandering aimlessly until they bumped into each other like drunken giants. Headed by the most famous generals of the age. At that moment Hamil laughed, and a spark was born in his eye. Finally.
There was a quickening in the army, a noticeable lurch to activity that was born in the breast of every man and beast. Hamil could feel the blood of his entire army pulse and burn with new life, until his own heart wished to burst with the strength of it. They wanted to fight! It was a marvelous discovery. His men were excited with the prospect of fighting, wishing to carve into the bodies of their foes with complete abandon. Here he had been worrying of starvation and plague, even mutiny! Hamil laughed again, taking quick steps to his field tent and his maps. Worthless, all of them. But he needed something to mark the location of the battle, to give the terrain of the battle to be waged. It was just a skirmish, now. No doubt two arms of foraging cavalry had touched upon the other. But it would be a vortex that would pull in and consume the hundred thousand on either side. It was too late to maneuver or to find better ground. The battle was now, and none too soon. The battle must be won now or he would have no army left to fight it later. But he could still make those tiny changes, more men on one flank than the other, skirmishers holding heights or feints to draw off the weight of the enemy line. All those tiny distributions of men that made battles won or lost. Sometimes battles were already won or lost before they began, but in those, it was all a question of how great a victory or defeat. There was no way a phalanx marching uphill could defeat a legion holding the heights, or a legion could survive on the open plain where cavalry ran free. A good general would escape with a sting, though. A bad general would lose the war. No matter the strategy, no matter how good the strategist, without the tiny tactical decisions to carry the field and transform mere victory into total victory or total defeat into mere defeat, the battle was lost. A general was not a general until he fought in the field.
“Reporting, sir.” The messenger saluted breathlessly.
“Well done.” Hamil said quickly, herding the messenger to his tent. “I need you to show me the battle.” He gave the feather quill to the scout and pointed at the map.
“Let me find. . .” The scout had been trained to associate the contours on the map to turn into mountains with cliffs and gulleys in his mind. He’d been trained to see the world as a map and a map as the world. Unfortunately, when the map did not mirror the world, it was hard to see the world in the map. “It was cavalry, you see. We think maybe Patagonians, from the north. We had come upon an abandoned farmstead, and then they came upon us, and then more cavalry came to help us when they saw the dust, and then more cavalry rode in from their side to relieve their side. . .Just the hugest mess, battalions and squads being fed in one by one, nobody knowing if they were meant to be fighting or pulling out, whether the plan would be endangered if they left their position, or if the army was going to be destroyed if they didn’t join the fray immediately. A giant mess, some taking the initiative and others waiting to see what the higher ups would say, or how the battle would go. And more men came flying in as if from the very sky to the battle by the hour. It was all just cavalry, but I’m sure the infantry can’t be far behind.”
“How long has it been?” Hamil asked.
“Since the morning, since the very morning, sir. We were trying to have breakfast is all.” And then the scout laughed, at the madness of it all, and a little madness was in his laugh as well. How many people were dying for that breakfast?
It was already past noon. Six hours for the scout to reach him. Another eight for the army to reach back, and then only the cavalry. By then the cursed winter day would be long done. He’d be lucky to reach the fight by tomorrow. Until then, each commander was deciding on his own if he should commit or not--the stupid fools! Every hour lost of hesitation would be paid for in the blood of a thousand men. If they had committed immediately, they could have had overwhelming force, the strength to win the good ground and be ready and waiting for Marcellus to try to root them out. Now it was total chaos, men being fed into a maelstrom with no victory no matter the length of the fighting. When he arrived, Hamil dreaded, it would be with Marcellus already on the heights, and too much of Hamil’s army committed to pull out. What could he possibly do? Retreat, when the whole army was practically singing with the expectation of battle? He could not deny his men the fight. They would most likely attack against his orders the moment they came within sight of their enemy. The only way to prevent the battle would be to order an immediate withdrawal to all the company commanders, and by then it may be too late for those commanders to save themselves from the entire weight of the Illyrian host. It would mean a defeat, if he didn’t rush to the attack. A defeat his men’s spirits could not endure. He could only race as quickly as possible to the battle, only use all speed and hope against hope that he could get their first. Full commitment, regardless of the stupidity or the recklessness, was the smartest and least dangerous course. And he wouldn’t reach the battle until a day after it had already begun. Hamil felt like hitting something, but the scout was there and the last thing he could do is look flustered in front of his men. The general was the soul of confidence, the anchor of unwavering assurance, that the whole army relied upon. For him, nothing could ever be wrong with any situation. No use in cursing the stupidity of hesitant underlings who could not make the same reasoning as himself. Only accept it, and solve it as quickly as possible.
“Attendant!” Hamil shouted, making the scout flinch before he went back to making sense of the map. Hamil’s voice quickly fetched a captain into the tent. Hamil was already scrawling orders onto paper, making heavy blots and gashes with the strokes of his quill. Orders by word of mouth would change a thousand times into the exact opposite orders by the time they reached the other’s ear. Only in writing them orders would the cowards dare to be daring and join the fray. They needed to know that it wasn’t their mistake, but Hamil’s. These people were too afraid to make a mistake they couldn’t piss for fear that they’d miss the latrine. Fine, then, he would write the orders. But he could at least write them angrily.
“To all the commanders of the liberation army: on the thirteenth hour of the third day of Gypsum. An engagement of cavalry located in—“ Hamil cursed and stopped. “Scout, do you have a location?”
“Sir, I can only hazard—“ The scout started.
“Enough, just point.” Hamil was losing patience as he went to gather up the marked up map. All these people too cursed afraid to make a mistake. Too cursed afraid to be responsible. They were here to fight a war! Everyone here was prepared to die! And they were afraid of losing face?
“Well, sir, if this mountain here is really shaped like this. And the scout had drawn in a few more lines and crossed out a few others. Well, it would be there, except the whole thing isn’t right. There’s a gully there, following a nice stream, and a whole flat land for farming. We wandered straight into it.”
“Thank you.” Hamil sighed in relief, gathering up his map. “You will of course ride beside me, and show us the route. Your name?”
“Akkhen, sir. Thank you, sir.” The scout left to find a new horse and food to restore the strength sapped from a six hour ride with the terror of failure biting at his heels. The energy was in everyone’s step. Everything was vital and important, every motion measured and counted for its benefit towards reaching the battlefield. Hamil turned back to his orders, the attendant waiting patiently to begin his own sprint of activity.
“To all the commanders of the liberation army: on the thirteenth hour of the third day of Gypsum. An engagement of cavalry located in the vicinity of the mountain known as Ninces and numbered 341 began on the seventh hour of this day. You are commanded to proceed with total commitment immediately upon reception of these orders. All forces are ordered to engage immediately upon arrival, all forces are ordered to make all speed to the battlefield. Unless or until orders are countermanded only by the General’s orders and only as written and signed by his hand. Any superior’s orders countermanding these instructions is an act of treason and shall be treated accordingly. All forces are ordered immediate engagement, regardless of strength or size of those ordered. Blessed Necia grant us victory.
General Hamil, commander of the Liberation Army.’
Hamil resented every second wasted repeating himself, but knew that battles and wars had been lost by unclear orders. Everything must be done absolutely clearly, because there was no more room for error. He tore out the paper and handed it to the captain. “Have the scribes make a thousand copies and have a thousand scouts deliver these orders into the hand of every battalion in the army. All forces, do you understand?”
“Yes sir. I’m on it sir.” Then the captain truly did sprint out of the tent to deliver this message to the scribes. Battles were lost by wasting time, too. Hamil paused to wonder if this overreaction was being relied upon by Marcellus, that somehow the man had meant this whole battle to occur as a diversion. But it was too perfectly chaotic for Illyria to have planned it. No, Hamil knew well enough how hopelessly lost the Illyrians were. It simply couldn’t be a disguise to some brilliant plan. No, when Hamil reached the battlefield first because of his ‘overreaction’ it would be long enough to defeat all the forces there and decide the ground for when Marcellus’ cautious actions saw him there a day or two too late. Full and total force, daring assaults, they were the mark of a good general. Caution might stop him from losing a battle, but it would never give him the victory. He had not marched thousands of miles to ‘not lose’ the war. With the moment’s second-guessing behind him, Hamil rolled up his map and stuck it into his case at his belt. The tents must be pitched, the men assembled, the horses fed. . .What a nightmare trying to move seventy thousand men at any speed beyond a snail’s crawl! Hamil walked out of his tent to find his horse. They would ride however long it took into the night for them to fight on the morrow. Let Marcellus move faster than that.
Marcellus arrived on the battlefield deep into the night, his entire body aching in new and interesting ways. It was a competition between his eyes that wanted to shut, his bottom that wanted to never touch a saddle again, his back that refused to bend without the sheerest of protests, or his head which had such a horrendous dull pressure at his temple that he wanted to take a drill to it and break it open. The first three could be explained by an old man riding in his saddle far past his time to sleep, the last could only be explained by a mind exploding from the strain of taking into account all the possibilities and all the threats of the battle. It was horrible ground, valleys leveling out onto open (now abandoned) farmland, ringed by mountains, fed by a rushing stream. The whole plain was reduced to mud by the churning battle of cavalry that had only retired when they could no longer see who they were swinging their swords at. Not deep enough to stop a horse, but only perfect to render marching in unison something of a miracle. The river cut whatever army he would lead in half, making it almost impossible to coordinate the two wings. There wasn’t enough room to field anything like his full strength, and the valleys were chokepoints where armies could never hope to pursue through. Unless he could somehow claim the valley at both sides, no decisive battle could ever be fought. Rather the two armies would steadily shrink with no particular advantage. Like trading pieces on the chessboard. Whoever lost a piece would just move up another, taking and retaking, until they were out of pawns. It was horrible ground in which to win a war. Beautiful ground in which to not lose it. Unless, of course, he could swing the auxiliaries around and box Hamil’s forces into the valley from the other side. Perhaps there was an accessible mountain route known by the locals, where they could get around the supposedly impassible heights with a strong enough force to capture and hold the escape route long enough for his main force to grind Hamil’s forces to dust. Of course, Hamil would probably be trying the same thing, except moving around the heights with cavalry to claim Marcellus’ escape. Perhaps it would be best to feign battle here, then, and wait in ambush to destroy the cavalry, snatching a pawn and then retreating? But then, what if Hamil committed the bulk of his force to the surrounding arm? Then the true battle would just be on the other side of the canyon, a comparatively flatter and wider ground that would play to Hamil’s advantage. And of course, Marcellus would be fighting against the walls of the canyon, with only the bottleneck of the valley to retreat through. . .
His head pounded, his brain struggling to pop out of his skull. There were too many possibilities to even conceive of. No doubt Hamil was planning something he hadn’t even thought of, that he hadn’t even thought of not having thought of. No matter how many guesses he made, there were an infinite further number of contingencies to think about and counter. It was like having a chessboard without boundaries, without the location of the enemy pieces. How could he play against that? Worse, for all he knew a pawn was actually a castle, a bishop actually a knight. If the scout reports were faulty. Or a bishop could turn into a knight, or a pawn could grow into a castle. If the army’s organization were to change. It was chaos, all chaos. For all he knew, the rules of victory might reverse. Or he might have some new piece, like a pegasus, whose powers Marcellus did not even know yet. Or perhaps war was far too chaotic for even the most chaotic chess game to match, except that the best generals took all that chaos and somehow made things go as planned anyway. The continuous struggle in his head was the war. All he had to do was make the right move, and the battle was his. After he made a decision, after his head stopped splitting apart with the pressure of that decision, the rest was inevitable. However brave the armies, if put in the wrong place they’d die, in the right place they’d kill. It was just a matter of making the right move. But how could he make any right move, when the ground had been decided for him? But if he hadn’t hurried to the battlefield, no doubt Hamil would, and slice apart half his bewildered army in the meantime. At least the ground defeated all attempts at strategy. Maybe, just maybe, the battle would come down to who wanted to win more. His men couldn’t run, their wives and their children waited behind them. If he could grind it out, the Necians had to fold first. No matter how brave they were, they weren’t desperate. He had that. His men would fight to the last. He at least had that on Hamil. If he could just do one brilliant thing, even if he just didn’t do anything wrong. . .he would have a good chance.
He had been sitting very straightly on Vale, he realized, for the past twenty minutes. He was too tired to move, and it would hurt too much. He preferred to sit on his horse forever than the pain of dismounting. In the dark it was impossible to tell what was going on, and for a moment he considered making a raid on the enemy surely no further than a mile away. But the Legions were dropping from exhaustion the entire forced march here. He doubted they could even walk another mile, much less lift a sword at the end of it. Then he thought to prepare a stockade in case of a night attack, but again rejected it as impossibly tiring. If Hamil’s men could somehow gain the energy to fight all day and then attack at night, then they deserved to win the war. They deserved to rule the world. Marcellus laughed mirthlessly, looking at the dizzying height from his head to the muddy earth. His head pulsed in protest, and Marcellus teetered back, momentarily going blind. He clenched his thighs with all his strength, sending a new burning through his legs, bordering on cramps. Which kept him from falling off Vale’s other side and probably breaking his skull on some conveniently jagged rock. When all his body was done attacking him, he was still atop his horse and still wondering how to get off. Not that Vale would be feeling any sympathy. He had probably tried to break Vale’s legs a dozen times by riding him through the clouded night. Nor did Vale intend to move again for the next week. Marcellus remembered that horses could sleep standing up, and groaned.
Apparently his slave noticed his plight, because he brought another horse alongside Vale. “Here sir.” Bernadine gestured. “Just slide back, lay back and I’ll let you down all slow-like.” Marcellus looked at his angel of mercy, somehow here to help him off his horse, and carefully helped himself out of the saddle and onto the blessed ground. Now all he had to do was reach his bed. And there was Bernadine again, taking his hand and leading him, almost carrying him, to the tent awaiting his presence. Marcellus fell asleep sometime before his head actually reached the cot, long before he had a chance to give thanks.
A few disgustingly short hours later, he was awake. It was dawn, and he didn’t know where to put his army. For a moment he thought that maybe they could just rest for a day. They could agree to a truce until tomorrow, and everyone could go back to sleep. It was the most sensible thought that had ever occurred to him, bleary eyed and aching with a fatigue that had found its way to his bones. But they weren’t friends seeking mutual benefit. For some reason, they were there to kill each other, which meant he couldn’t let them rest. He had to grind them and harry them and attack them from dawn till dusk. If they were still there tomorrow, he would have to do it again. And again. Until the bastards didn’t stand up again and they could all go home. If anything, they should be hungrier and more fatigued than the Legions, their supplies far too slow to catch up with the pace Hamil had to have set. If he pressed the battle now, it would be against a tired and hungry foe. Probably the Necians were even cold, so used to the desert heat. The advantage of endurance. It was a ridiculous way to fight, a war of attrition until the last man standing, but presently Marcellus had no better plan and was too tired to come up with one. Automatically Marcellus stuck cold mutton between cold bread, automatically he brought the breakfast to his face. His mind was all set to swallow when Fabius disrupted him.
“Why do you put your lamb between the bread? Doesn’t that ruin the taste?” Fabius asked quizzically. For being older, Fabius had no right to be able to walk around or think in complete sentences.
Marcellus looked at his sandwich as if he had just discovered it. “I can’t taste it anyway.”
“Ah, I should have known you would be far too gloomy by now.” Fabius was cheery, cheery. Marcellus looked death at his friend.
“Just look at the ground!” Fabius marveled. “Beautiful ground.”
Marcellus looked at the flat, rutted valley, and saw nothing beautiful. “Where?”
“We could hold here for a year. We could hold here until the sun went out.” Of course Fabius was delighted at the concept of impregnable defenses. It was Marcellus’ job, after all, to somehow impregnate them. If that was the right word. Marcellus was too tired to find another.
“Stretch the Legions out here, and the cavalry can do any dance it pleases, won’t even touch us.” Fabius envisioned.
“And what happens if they don’t move either? We just sit here staring?” Marcellus grumbled.
“Fine by me.” Fabius said. “We can still wait them out, now that we have them by the throat. They can’t retreat, and they can’t advance. So they’ll sit right there until the supplies dry out.”
“What if they do retreat? A thousand men could hold the entire army for a year.”
“They can’t, though.” Fabius assured. “They have to fight, see? They’re tired of marching. If generals could control their men, then of course he should retreat. But they want the fight. They’re going to come charging at us like a storm. They didn’t march a thousand miles until their feet fell off, starve and shiver through the night, only to retreat now.”
“And if Hamil has the bulk of his army elsewhere, holding us here with just a thousand?” Marcellus asked. It was Marcellus’ greatest fear, that somehow Hamil had planned this entire battle and was through some masterful maneuver about to plunge into his exposed rear. Half of his army inside the valley, the other half outside, all dead tired, it would be enough to crack his legions like an egg.
“Well.” Fabius chewed on his mustache. “Well, I guess we need scouts to make sure he’s here. Maybe there’s a passage through those mountains.” Marcellus had remarkably had the exact same thought. The mountains didn’t look that steep. But then, of course the two could think each other’s thoughts. Marcellus was beside Fabius far more often than Lydra, in the field far more often than at home. Why is home always the distant dream? Marcellus didn’t have time to dwell on it. Another problem for another day.
“In any case, we have an hour to form ranks. I’m not sure if the Legions can even fight today.” Marcellus wasn’t sure if he could. The tenth legion was no younger than he, and they were the most solid men in the entire army. He didn’t want to make them fight today.
“They’ll come at us, rest assured. With that cursed river making it impossible to relieve each other.” Fabius looked at the river angrily. “All we have to do is stand here and they’ll run right onto our swords.”
“It’s not well, that they should get the charge.” Marcellus knew how much attacking aided the morale.
“Look at this mud, Marcellus! If we tried to march across it, our Legions would be a mob before they even reached their line! Let well enough alone. This ground is for defending, and we must do just that.” Fabius thought every battle should be holding a line. And he was right, of course. Holding the line was far easier than breaking one. But no war was won by holding any line.
“They’ll come at us oblique.” Marcellus predicted. “All the strength on one side, just enough to tie up the other. They’ll have their most elite cavalry charging like a coiled spring.” Or was that an uncoiled spring? Marcellus was too tired. It was ridiculous to be Consul at this age. He should be home playing with his grandchild. He had a grandchild, by Illyria! What was he doing here? Because for some reason there was no one else. Marcellus discovered he was still holding his sandwich, and then wondered what he was supposed to do with it. Eating it seemed to be less of an effort than finding a place to put it, so he took another bite.
“A reserve, then. We can support whichever side he assaults.”
“Or throw enough weight on the other side to crush it, then swing around and catch the real assault in a vice.”
“Can’t be done. He would just throw in more on his side, and surround us. No amount of people we can kill would be enough to free up either wing.”
“There are too many cursed people. We just have to sit here and kill each other until the amount of people on the battlefield is reasonable again.” Marcellus’ gloomy vision was in full force.
“Eventually someone breaks. Eventually someone always does. Realistically, we could sit here and fight for months, just feeding in more men. But eventually one army will break, for no logical reason, and run for it. It’s just a matter of stoicism.”
“We couldn’t fight for months. The corpses would fill up the valley until there was no more room to fight.” Marcellus retorted grimly.
“Well, at least we can sit here and fight today.” Fabius snapped. “And some would say it is a bad omen for Consuls to joke about the dead.”
“I wasn’t joking.” Marcellus answered, finishing his sandwich. But maybe that makes it an even worse omen.
Fabius apparently hadn’t heard him. “Fighting in this narrow valley, with no room for maneuver, it’s damned beautiful. It doesn’t matter how ingenious Hamil is. All he can do is push straight forward. The great Hamil and all he can do is attack right up the middle. Damned beautiful.” Marcellus had to agree. Whatever strategy Hamil had intended, whatever brilliant tactics he planned to use, it had all been rendered mute by the all-powerful ground. It seemed like a cheap trick, to Marcellus. Rendering the generals impotent and having the whole war decided by the soldiers. Something only an inferior general would attempt. No doubt Hamil thought he’d planned just that, because he was afraid to meet him in a fair fight. Well, curse it, no one said war had to be fair. Marcellus got out his spyglass, looking at the dim camp on the other side of the valley. The early morning mist made the whole view a gray blur, but there was plenty of motion behind it. They really were going to come straight forward.
“We can’t just put more and more ranks behind the original. Panic spreads like a wave. There has to be a break in the wave, another unit and another standard, so that it can’t spread. Let’s put the tenth Eagle in reserve. Solid men, tired men. Hopefully they won’t have to fight, but they’ll be damn good at stopping any thoughts of panic and rout.” Marcellus thought out loud. “No doubt Hamil will go all out, his finest and all of them, hoping that today he has the advantage. We’ll have to field all three legions, no relying on the auxiliaries. Tomorrow we might be able to cycle them out and put fresh men in. But today they just have to fight.”
Fabius nodded. “You go with the Tenth, then. Just the sight of you ought to rally any rout. I’ll hold the left wing with the Sixth. Muscianus can hold with the Fifth. A rough first day of battle, but we need that Legion. We need that Legion to become veterans very quickly.”
“And let’s try to get some auxiliaries up onto these heights. We’re supposed to have archery and artillery to support us, and by tomorrow they’d better be there.” The catapults would be assembled or built on the spot by the engineers. Illyria had the best engineers in the world, and they would know how to clear the land for the siege engines, now that the battlefield had finally been chosen. If they could hold today, Marcellus doubted Hamil would ever be able to break through after. Marcellus’ position would only get stronger, better supplied, better supported, better fortified, as the days passed. Marcellus doubted Hamil would attack tomorrow, if he couldn’t break them today. The odds would only keep getting worse.
Trumpets sounded, and the three Legions pulled away from their breakfast or their uneasy chatter or their prayer. Thirty thousand men, each trying in their own way to deal with the chance of impending death, scattered across the two square miles of the campsite like pebbles across sand. Some were old and gray, perhaps with grandchildren, perhaps having outlived their own children. Veterans, numb to the fear of battle, with nothing truly left to lose. Many had wives and children awaiting them in some city or some farm, here to protect that city and farm and wife and child from the marauders. Some had nothing but a dream, their faces fresh and eyes bright. In the Legion to gain citizenship, or to earn a living, or for love of Illyria. For some reason, they had all assembled sharply today under the three Eagles. Under Fabius’ Racing Stallion, under Marcellus’ Sunhand, under Muscianus’ Thunderbolt. Under the morning sun, out of the dawn’s gray mist, emerged a glorious sight of metal men glittering with discipline and determination. Eyes narrowed, hands clenched javelins furiously, the long shields quivered to take up their position for the all-important shield wall. If a single man was out of position, a single shield out of place, the whole Legion was put at risk. If the wall held, it was almost impossible to even touch them. The legion was like one giant organism, moving and fighting together invincible. If whorls and eddies of chaos broke that synchrony apart, the organism died, and the Legion turned into ten thousand frightened and confused men.
At this moment, though, everything was in place. The banners shone, the armor glistened blinding bright, the javelins all held at the same angle, swords close at hand. Legions were almost indestructible, in their armament and discipline. But now it would not be the onrushing barbarians to test them, but equally grim, equally ordered Necians. Children of a Goddess, with blood divine. Across the valley, their shouts and horns began to rise, higher and higher, echoing back and forth between the mountains. There was a great sound of spears striking against shields, in unison. The dawn’s mist still hid them, but that only made it worse. As though an army of phantasms were emerging from the nether world. Men’s grips tightened around their javelins, until the knuckles went white. Better if it were just over with, they prayed. Better if the battle was over, and they were dead or alive. Nothing worse than this not knowing. This wondering whether the sun would ever shine upon their faces again. And then the enemy side grew silent, the silence even louder than the noise. Illyrians always fought silently, coldly, refusing to admit their humanity in order to refuse to admit their fear. They were used to the shouting Ogres. Not to this same silence. For a moment, the day breathed in perfect silence, only the banners stirring in the valley from the sharp cold breeze. All the men below might have been standing there for a parade. For a moment the two armies, hidden from each other by the mist, were beautiful spectacles of man’s power. Then a horn sounded, and the cavalry came pouring out of the mist in a dead gallop, on both wings, with a speed that sent a wave of terror through the Illyrian ranks. Cavalry and then more cavalry, riding almost at each other’s heels, with lowered lances flew at the stationary foot, with every intention to ride straight through them. The silence was the most terrifying aspect of the entire scene. So many men, and not one betraying any sense of humanity. Until the Sixth and the Fifth legions let loose a hail of javelins at the first riders, and men and horses began dying with screams.
Horses skidded with their own momentum across the muddy ground, the horses charging behind them tripping and stumbling over the fallen. The terror of the screams didn’t reach the well-trained mounts, who ignored the dead and dying with tenacious determination. Soon the next line of stumbling, slowed riders was slaughtered, all across the line, darts arcing in with deadly carefree ease. Of all the men who led the assault on the Legions, perhaps one in ten was not pierced or trampled in the first moments of the battle. Not a single one reached the enemy line. For some reason all those at the fore had been willing to die simply shielding those behind. It was either suicidal stupidity or incredible courage.
The Legions continued throwing their javelins, hurling one flurry after the next, rank following rank. The darts floated through the air and lost themselves in the sea of tightly packed foes, always hitting something, horse or rider, causing whorls of chaos and carnage. But soon the ground was traversed by the galloping warhorses, at first by a few, and then as the few disrupted the Legions, many. Like a blizzard, the true onslaught followed these first snowflakes, and whatever losses the javelins had caused seemed to have made no difference in the least.
The lances, supported by the mass and speed of a warhorse at a dead charge, shattered against the shields of the foot, followed immediately by the trampling momentum of the horses themselves. The whole Legion was thrown backwards, front ranks crushed between charging horses and the bodies of the ranks behind them. Men were thrown down, dazed and shocked, armor crushed against their own flesh and bones by the force of impact. They had little chance to scream, rib cages cracking inwards and crushing hearts and lungs. Sheer force, no edge or blade, slammed into the Legion, and the whole ten thousand rippled with the shock of impact. The cavalry pressed forward, seeking to run through the enemy, giving room for the next wave to slam against the shore. The Legionnaire’s short swords were little use against the mounted riders, not even reaching the elevated men save to hack at their legs. Better use was set to impaling the horses with the force of their own charge, bringing horse and rider down alike. Horses fell forward, crushing more men beneath their weight, screaming and kicking erratically, as men soaked with horse blood chopped frantically until the beast and rider lay still. Ranks were split by these wedges of force, but always reformed in their passing, until the cavalry was stuck against the Legions, the riders behind with no room to deliver the charge, almost walking into battle as individuals fell or cut further into the mass of foot. There were simply too many footmen for the charge to break, and now there were too many riders for more riders to join the fray. The assault ground to a halt, individuals battling individuals in a hopeless melee. Some horsemen were surrounded by foes on every side, sharp strong swords killing horses under their riders before finding the dazed men. With the advantage of reach, the horsemen cut with great overhand strikes into the foot beneath, smashing in skulls through their helmets with the bludgeoning force of the saber’s edge. Others raised their shields in time, and the horsemen could find no way around these long shields from their single vantage point above. Some foot were stronger than others, holding the blows of sabers with their shields, others were knocked down by the force of the blow, kicked by horse’s hooves, arms breaking from the strain. Still others were taking shattered or lost lances and stabbing them through the Necians exposed chests. The Legions were far more heavily armored than the light armor the cavalry required to maintain their speed. There was little to no order left in any of the units, though courage and valor were found at every side, banners fluttering defiantly overhead. The valley spanned two miles, split by the river, and across these two miles men fought with the deafening roar of battle.
Men died, and others stepped up to take their place. Men less sure and less reliable than those who held the front, but fighting men less sure and reliable on the other side. Some had never waved their swords at an actual foe before in all their lives. Caught up in the frenzy of battle, there was no chance to go anywhere but forward, comrades at all sides pressing forward, aching to join the fray that raged only meters away. No one could be said to be winning or losing. There were always more men waiting to fight than men engaged. Those who had survived the initial charge had been hacking and killing horse after horse, rider after rider, in a sort of mechanical thoughtless fashion. Some horsemen had cut and carved their way so deeply into the Legion’s ranks that they stood alone in a sea of foes, so terrified by their prowess that empty ground somehow magically surrounded them on all sides. The greatest warriors could be found seeking out each other, cutting down commoners with incredible ease. It was a melee, a frenzy, devoid of ranks or shouted orders or strategy. A horseman could join the battle only to die the next moment, pierced by a javelin held in reserve for the very event. Or he could ride into the battle, hacking at shielded and armored bodies left and right, not even threatened or challenged by men cringing for their lives. Only the gods could have found a trend or pattern that showed victory for one side or defeat for the other.
Hours passed, and Marcellus sat atop Vale silently, passively, showing no sign that anything was out of order. The grip on his reigns was cramped and bloodless, knowing that his son stood somewhere in the sixth legion. Or perhaps lay wounded and fallen, or perhaps dead from the very start of the battle bravely standing against the overwhelming charge. There was no hope in seeing him, beautiful blond hair and blue eyes with that boundless courage, amidst ten thousand shining bronze helmets. He thought that beseeching Illyria for his survival would have been a sort of betrayal. Publius had freely chosen to risk his life for Illyria, and to demand that his life should be spared would be a break of troth, a breach of honor. Besides, all his prayers should be preserved for the greater good of victory, the life or death of his son could not claim higher importance than that. Not for a Consul. The Sixth Legion stood as a stone wall, Fabius as capable as ever to hold whatever ground he had decided to hold. Tonight they would make stakes and trenches, to pierce the bellies and break the legs of tomorrow’s charging foes. Tonight they would dig in and fortify the heights, hurling flaming pitch and boulders into the enemy camp sitting miles away. If they could just reach tonight, Marcellus imagined, everything would go Illyria’s way. The fifth Legion’s thunderbolt stood proud and erect as well, and this came as a pleasing surprise. The strength of the charge exhausted, now the spent and tattered remnants fought themselves out, like the sputters of a dying flame not quite out of fuel. Until trumpets sounded, and horses pulled out where they could, and riders withdrew, turning tail and retreating through muddy ground caked with the fallen and the wounded left untended. There was a momentary cheer as more darts brought down the slower and lagging riders. The valley was so full of dust that it was hard to tell what was following, but the sun stood stubbornly at its zenith, the whole day still waiting ahead. With the retreat of the first cavalry, the Legion restored itself to some level of order, barked commands making lines out of muddy masses. As far as Marcellus could tell from here, the Legions had suffered no visible loss of men. There seemed to be an inexhaustible supply. On the other side of the valley, more trumpets were heard, and an entirely fresh wave of riders came, this time even faster and surer with the knowledge that the darts had all been spent. The footmen stood, gazing at their approaching foes deadly, wordlessly, and there were enough cavalry once more to fill the entire mile. As though all their fighting had accomplished nothing at all. The front ranks had quickly, as fast as ingenuity had come, taken up the abandoned lances of the first wave to brace against the charge of the second. But too many had no such available device, or no such fast thinking to provide some hope of survival. Many of the men standing at the front of the Legion were too tired to do anything but await the lances’ promised death. And the cavalry charged, and the cycle of death began anew.
Between the second and third charge there was no reprieve.
Nor between the third and fourth.
And as the fourth charge retreated to allow the entry of fresh and excited riders into the battle, Marcellus knew that the Legions that had been fighting since the sun rose in the east, would not hold until the sun set in the west. The Tenth Legion had steadily been feeding its men in to fill the holes of any particular engagement, but the Legions in front of them had stubbornly held their own. Now Marcellus decided that he had to commit new troops if he hoped to hold at all. Hamil had managed to fight with four times as many men as Marcellus in the same amount of space, and it was telling. The Legionnaires died far more quickly than the fresh horseman, out-armed and in desperate fatigue. If this were a battle of attrition, Hamil was winning. It would be different tomorrow, Marcellus promised himself, but today was still somehow here, and he had to do something or the Legions would break. It would be ridiculous to counterattack on foot into the untouched camp of the enemy. It would have to be a defensive maneuver. Marcellus had little time to plan out the details, the fourth wave already retiring from the battlefield. But if he could open up the foot and let the horse charge through unimpeded, the Tenth Legion could hold where the Fifth and Sixth could not, and then the two front legions could close in on the rear. They could finally destroy an enemy, and not watch helplessly as they withdrew to fight another day. Hamil could not expect it, seeing as how uncreatively Marcellus had fought the first four waves. It would work.
“Attendant, quickly, I want you to ride down their and tell them to swing the Legions open like a gate, don’t meet the charge. Do you understand? Don’t meet the charge, and let them ride straight on, then swing closed once they're through. Ride, now!” The rider saluted and rushed across to reach the Legion before the next charge.
“All right men, we have forty thousand darts to stop five thousand horses!” Marcellus shouted encouragement. “Let’s show them what the Tenth is made of!” It was such a sudden decision that only immediate obedience would succeed, but Fabius trusted Marcellus implicitly and no hesitation or stalling was lost. Once again Marcellus searched frantically for the sight of his son. But of course there was no way to know. Muscianus’ men went more slowly, more confusedly, and the charge struck the Fifth with only a slight altering of course, the men embroiled in battle in the midst of retreat. Their odds were even worse now than if Marcellus had done nothing, and he cursed the junior Consul for his hesitance. But now there was no more time to worry about the fate of the Fifth, for cavalry came rushing through as they saw a routed Legion and straight into the jaws of a whole and untouched veteran force.
The javelins went flying like hail, taking by surprise riders who had thought that danger long since past, slaughtering line upon line of careless riders too tightly packed to avoid the missiles. By the time the charge reached the Tenth, most of its impetus was lost to the whistling death. And before they could see the trap of the reforming Sixth on their rear, they were too embroiled in combat to escape. Marcellus atop Vale made for an easy target, and despite the Legion’s efforts some few even reached the Consul. He carefully aimed and released each of his four javelins, toppling the nearest from their seats. Then drew his sword, without a hint of unease, his warhorse as nonchalant beneath him. As it happened , some few blows did reach his armor, but none of any strength to be concerned. Marcellus struck back, his steel blade piercing leather armor without a second thought, bringing two more down before the rest were killed by his Legion. Marcellus knew it was stupid to risk his own life in order to kill one or two men, when the lives of millions hung in the balance. But Marcellus also knew that men would not follow a general whose bravery was not proven on the battlefield. And so he fought and lived, and those around him watched and were willing to fight as well.
He had no time to celebrate the inevitable victory, for Muscianus’ Legion was breaking bit by bit, men streaming into the supposed safety of the rear, and the cavalry was following gleefully. Behind them, Marcellus could see Hamil throwing more riders into the attack, seeing both Legions breaking and determined to claim the field. Marcellus held up his bloody sword, his bannerman standing impassively beside. “Rally! Rally to the Fifth!” He shouted with the strength of all his lungs. “Rally! Rally!” And soon the men all around Marcellus had taken up the cry, surging forwards to meet the retreating Legionnaires ahead. Shouting defiance, the untouched Tenth struck charging the untouched cavalry striking at the Fifth’s heels. The Tenth was fresh from victory, with the full force of surprise behind their charge, and soon the Fifth had turned back again, seeing their promised relief, and two legions went about devouring a single detachment of mounted men.
Until Hamil’s supporting charge reached the front, and the shock of lances crumpled flesh and armor, and horses screamed higher pitches than dying men, and shouts and cries ran all across the line. Death stalked across the valley until the last bleeding light of the sun was lost, and Illyrians and Necians alike fell back in exhaustion. Thousands of corpses littered the ground. And not a single inch of ground gained to either side.
For the Legions, the day was done. Wounded and dead were escorted to the rear, the whole army retreating in safety when they had not lost a single step under the sun. But for the fresh troops who took up their place, the day had only begun. Battlements and entrenchments were being dug, siege engines occupying the heights. There would be no rest for either army as preparations were made for tomorrow. No one thought to wonder if there would be more fighting. It was taken for granted. And for those who had not yet fought, it was even something to anticipate. New tactics were developed to meet oncoming cavalry, new regiments deployed where the old left behind. Now that the armies had finally met, it was only a matter of wearing each other down. As the armies of two great nations, neither were in the least bit tired from the grappling of a single day.
Hamil looked through his telescope upon the battle-weary ground. The river had been spoiled with the bodies of the dead, the ground covered with them. Five days now, and not an inch of ground to show for it. Five days and any number of dead and dying. There was no quiet to the night anymore, the groans of those wounded left on the field keeping those yet to fight awake with thoughts of doom. At some point the armies had grown too weary to tend to the wounded save in the most desultory fashion. There were simply too many men to bury anymore, and not enough men with the strength to bury them. The frozen ground was too hard to dig in. At least it kept the bodies from putrescence, the armies from pestilence. Hamil laughed inwardly. Bless Necia, to not kill us before we can kill each other. Every day Hamil had won. With horse against foot, his army was always the stronger, day after day, always attacking and pressing the enemy line. But the Illyrians were dauntless. For every one he killed, two more would take up his place. For every ten he killed, twenty more would marshal on the morrow. It was impossible to kill enough. They could just stand still and let themselves be hacked at the whole day and the Necians still wouldn’t have enough time to kill them all. Perhaps he should have gone around. But he had truly thought they would break. He felt them breaking, that first day. Could see them breaking. He had thought the elephants were enough, the panic and chaos as they beserked through the ranks. . .but those remaining just filled in the holes. It was insane. He had never fought madmen before. They could lose and lose and lose, and act as though the battle had not seen its first day. It was like they didn’t even realize they were losing.
And now, how could he go around? How could he retreat, after losing so many? Were they to be lost all for nothing? Were those remaining to say to themselves—“Even in victory our general retreats. And what will he do in defeat?” There was too much committed. Even if he could retreat, where would they go? Where would they find sustenance? As it was, they were eating the dead horses of yesterday’s battle on today’s fires. They simply had to win. But what more could Hamil ask of his men? They fought with all the bravery and skill Necia had seen under the sun. They fought and triumphed every day for him. They could not be asked for anything more. No, there was some mistake of his. Some oversight. Some miscalculation. He should use his phalanx to break the cohorts, he should send the cavalry through the gaps, and press through to the innards of the foe. He should seek out the Marshals and the Consuls, and have them slain whatever the cost in men. He should use darters to take the hills, until the center had to retreat lest they were slaughtered in their sleep. He should lead the charge himself, and show Necia faith in her deliverance, so that she would reward him with victory. He should attack day and night, with no relent. The battle should never stop. Hamil shivered under his furs, thinking of a thousand different paths even this tiny valley afforded him. He should have brought more heavy clothing for the army before they had marched on Illyria. They were too tired to keep warm, the soldiers. But whenever he came near, they would stand up. They would stand up and salute him, and there would be no complaints. It made him sick with dread, the faith they had in him. He had once had that same faith in himself, but not anymore. Now all he could think about was what would happen if he failed his men. If he had thrown away all their lives for nothing. If he took their trust, and used it only to deliver them into the jaws of the enemy. How could he live then? How would Necia ever let him live after such a thing?
The men were cold. They were tired, and hungry. Those who drank of the water for thirst were now sick, the chorus of moans humming in the night. Those who abstained sat or lay silently with mouths full of cotton, huddled against each other around the fires, waiting for the sun to rise and grant some tiny portion of its warmth. Such suffering, he had brought to all his men. And in return they gave everything. Their courage, their devotion, their trust, their faith, their lives. It was a debt Hamil could repay only with victory. And he did not know how. Hamil sighed, and put away his scope. It was the same scene as ever, campfires blazing and banners defiantly waving across the valley.
Tomorrow, he would order the phalanx to split the legion. Somehow they would maintain order in the uneven ground. And somehow they would break the enemy, so that the cavalry could rush through, and strike the soft underbelly of the Lyrians. Somehow the cavalry would exploit a wide enough gap that it could not be filled, and the whole army would flee in panic. It had to work. There weren’t any men left to try again. A decisive battle. Tomorrow had to be the decisive battle. Cavalry in reserve, cavalry tying up the flanks, infantry to break the center, infantry to hold the gap, cavalry to exploit the hole, to cut off the retreat, and to destroy the whole army in its rout. Desperation, to attack with a phalanx. But what else could he do? Gamble on victory now, or wait and watch the army fade away. Even if the attack failed, there would be plenty enough to hold his side. The cursed ground was easy enough to hold. This wasn’t all or nothing. But it was the last chance for all. Hamil dimly wondered if he should join the battle, and then decided against it. If they lost today, he would have to be alive to negotiate the surrender.
“Look there.” Marcellus pointed. “They’re doing something different.” Fabius took up his spyglass. Dirt was encrusted on their faces. Trying to wash in the river would have only made them dirtier. The river was some contorted mix of mud, flesh, and blood. Like some vision out of hell.
“Don’t they ever want to rest?” Fabius sighed. “Couldn’t we just have one day to tend to the dead and wounded? Just one day for everyone to get a wretched night of sleep?”
“They’re demons.” Marcellus agreed. He felt old. Stupid. Fuzzy. The days were blurring into one another, and he couldn’t be sure how long he had been there, or why exactly he was standing here. “They just keep coming. They haven’t retreated once. They haven’t stopped once. I’ve never seen soldiers like them.”
“I’ve seen them one place else.” Fabius smiled. “But I never thought such people would ever stand opposite each other.”
Marcellus sighed. Children of the Goddess. The Necians had proven that much and more. He couldn’t imagine why he had to kill children of a Goddess. Why one Goddess would ever try to kill another. When the whole world was their making. He was too tired to understand anything. Just keep going. Just keep going and the Legions will keep going with you.
“There are too many men, Marcellus.” Fabius grimaced. “Too many men for today to be like yesterday. They’re doing something and we’re not ready for it.”
Marcellus looked at the assembling body again. “We’ll need a reserve for the center. They’re going to come for the center. By the Goddess. How does he still have so many men?”
“Like we haven’t even put a mark on him. The whole damned army as fresh as a parade.”
“Alright. Here’s what I want to see.” Marcellus wondered if he should be making commands anymore, he felt so dull. “The phalanx can’t hold formation on so wide a front. They’ll bristle like a porcupine, head-on. But if we engage oblique. Each man attacking diagonally to the left, to the unshielded side. We can get underneath. Somewhere the shields won’t be aligned. No troop is disciplined enough to keep a perfect wall attacking across this hell. And once the phalanx is penetrated, the whole formation will be useless. The short swords will take each spearman individually. Phalanxes are nothing if we can just get through the quills.”
“These are veterans, Marcellus. The Necians’ heartblood. Their flower. Not mercenaries. Not Lucian rebels. The phalanxes are Necia.”
“And the Legions are Illyria!” Marcellus shouted hotly. “If they can fight today, well then so can we! If Hamil can think up some new brilliant scheme, then so can I! We can keep fighting every day of the damn year!”
Fabius gave him an odd look. “I will deploy the Sixth in the center, then. Let’s pray we needn’t test your claim.” Then he spurred his horse to his banner, not letting Marcellus apologize. Of course, it wasn’t to Fabius that Marcellus felt ashamed. Forgive me, Illyria. Let the men know peace for this year, and all the years to come. Let idle boasts be taken to the idle winds, not to reach your ears. Let not my vanity be my people’s destruction. Forgive me, though all I do is sin. Forgive your most wretched servant. The Sixth Legion against Necia’s phalanx. Fabius had always held. But the Sixth was tired. The Sixth had been required to do the impossible hours and days at a time. To make up for the weakness of all the army around them. And now the completely fresh heart and fist of the Necian army would be arrayed against them. What a perfect time to make Illyria angry. At least Publius lay wounded in the back of the ranks, his shoulder and arm crushed by the thrashing horse he had felled. At least the Sixth wouldn’t have to do the impossible and save his son. Whatever happens, at least my son shall live. It suddenly seemed like the most important thing now. Marcellus thought about that as he brought together the Tenth to stay in reserve. The men were too old to fight the battle every day. But they were stolid enough to hold whenever the rest of Illyria wavered. Why should he think of Publius now? What was different today?
Perhaps because today he knew the battle was already lost, and the only thing left to think about was what could still be saved. Hamil had been pushing them every day, without even straining. But Illyria was strained to the bursting. There must have been thirty thousand men in the phalanx across from them. Men who hadn’t seen a day of battle. All he had was tired veteran remnants and untried youths. There was nothing left to hold them. Necia was just too strong. But at least Publius would live. Surely they would not slaughter the wounded after they’d won. At least his family. . .at least Scamander still had an army strong enough to protect his family. At least Illyria could find some better champion in the days to come. He had never deserved to lead. Maybe they had at least weakened Necia to the point that they couldn’t win another such fight. Maybe they had at least bought Illyria time before Necia could march on the City. It was enough. He could die today, and it was enough. Illyria, look upon us today. There have never been men so brave. Embrace your sons this night, and hold them to your bosom. None are more deserving of heaven.
“O Illyria, hear my prayer.” Marcellus plead. “The battle is yours, I ask not for deliverance. Only, I beg of you, let some other take up the banner I have lost along the way, and give your people hope. Who will love you, honor you, with songs and dances and all sweet things, if you leave this tempest unchecked? Take with us the extent of your fury. But to your people, who love you so, grant salvation.”
“Let us attack again, sir!” The soldier cried. “They shan’t stand another charge! We were so close! They can’t last another charge!” The army murmured in assent, rising up cries of their own, pleading to risk their lives.
“And what then?” Hamil shouted over them. “This whole battle, it is only three legions! Only a third part of Illyria’s strength! Suppose we defeat them, what use? Scamander holds another three Legions, untouched, behind impregnable walls. Caria holds three more, who haven’t even bothered to march homeward, because the threat is not yet great enough to leave the borders unprotected! Illyria remains untouched, unscathed.”
“Necia is with us!” They cried. “We defeated the Datians! Why not the Lyrians? What prowess is theirs? All they do is stand in place!”
“What use is a million swords without bread to feed them? What use the greatest army without fur to clothe them? What use the most brilliant tactics without strength to perform them? Are these mountains so grand, to give our lives for them? Is this land so full of treasure, to sacrifice the flower of Necia for them? There’s nothing here! Look around you! It’s a frozen wasteland! I say let them keep it, and choke on it! Necia’s soil, black as her wives, one hectare of it is worth more than the whole of their land! There’s nothing here for us. We all know your valour. And that is the very reason we must surrender. You are too beautiful in the eyes of our Mother to be lost for this wretched empty war. Your wives at home need you. Your sons to learn your strength. Your daughters to learn your devotion. Necia needs you to tend to Necia. Not die in a foreign land for a foreign Goddess!”
“Don’t go, sir! Don’t go!” They shouted. “They will kill you, and where will we be? Don’t trust in Lyrian dogs!”
Hamil just shook his head, determined. The Goddess knew he had never thought, in his wildest imaginings, that he’d ever have to surrender an army. Marcellus could not have outwitted him. The enemy had done the simplest thing imaginable, found good ground and held it. Looking back, Hamil could not see any better way. How he could have done anything but what he had done. But in essence, the victory of Marcellus was removing the quality of generalship from the equation. He had made the battle so simple that the most brilliant general could do nothing more than the very stupidest. All he could do was push. All the other could do was hold. The simplest, stupidest battle possible. And there had been no other choice but to fight it. The shame was hot and sharp, quick to the bone. But he could not throw away Necia’s heart for a fruitless victory. The victory was there to take. But a victory such as that would be his undoing. Better to surrender now, when Necia was still strong, when he was still strong enough that they didn’t dare reject his terms. Better to give up, when he still had cards to play. When the issue was not yet settled, and Illyria was still at risk. That they had strength left was the very reason to surrender now, and not fight on. That they could fight on was the very reason to quit now.
Hamil knew it was the right thing to do, as short and shameful the war had been. There was nothing but to mount up, and ride across the valley, white flag in hand.
“There he is.” The men whispered. “Hamil the Great. General of all Necia. There he rides.” The camp of the Illyrians was in tatters. The wounded outnumbered the men standing. Marcellus had commanded the men to rotate posts in circles, so as to make it seem like new men were replacing old. In fact, after the surface of the battlements, there was only a broken and exhausted heap of wailing, thirsty, cold, bleeding men. A child’s breath could have blown them over. Perhaps a thousand men were still capable of taking up arms in the three legions combined. Of the cohorts, none remained willing to fight for Illyria another day. Marcellus had begged and bribed the men to stay on just one more day, to just stand still and not retreat. He had spent an hour lying across the gate out of the barricade, so that they would have had to trample him to leave. He had plead, and turned their hearts, and out of love for him alone they stayed another day. The army no longer existed past the surface. And yet Hamil came riding up to them with a white flag. And yet Necia had come to surrender. There was no greater miracle needed to see the Goddess watching over them. Illyria alone could deliver the Necian army to a mere thousand capable of taking up arms.
Marcellus could see it all. The roving bandits stripping Illyria bare, the legions of Caria marshaling only to keep the flood of invaders at bay. Caria would break away, save themselves, and keep a vestige of civilization into the later years. Scamander would hold out until there was too much chaos to collect food, until taxes stopped being payed because there was no longer any protection being given in return. The people would starve, and then they would die of pestilence, the clustered quarters and the weakness of starvation pulling them to their graves. And all the west would collapse, to be fought over by returning Ogres, floods of barbarians. Necia might try to hold some part of it for herself, but would find herself too weak and too stretched out to make any lasting presence. Then Necia would retreat as well, and Illyria would be like some aged monument overgrown with wild grasses and weeds. There would be nothing there, but dogs roaming and killing from horizon to horizon. Nothing of Illyria, save what Caria saved. And then all those who roamed the wilderness would look at Caria, the land of plenty, with covetous eyes. And they would throw themselves at those walls, people after people, all seeking the type of life they would have under the very land they sought to destroy. And Caria would fight them off, time after time, each time the fight growing harder, longer, not so assured. Until one time they didn’t win, and the barbarians came to live in the beautiful land, only to learn it had long since perished under the strain. And the Goddess would die, Illyria herself would die, and no people would remember her name. Bales and Vosta would throw out their arms in victory, and claim the land for their own. And there would be nothing but darkness and death for all the howling years to come. That was the future if Necia made just one more attack. That was the future Hamil need only wave his arm to create. But instead he rode forward with a white flag. And Marcellus knew Illyria was a Goddess of greatness beyond greatness. Love beyond love. And tears began streaking down his face.
“Marcellus.” Fabius whispered. “Marcellus, what is wrong?” Marcellus slumped in his saddle, all his strength leaving him. The relief was too strong to bear. He could only lay across the neck of his perfect, wonderful horse and weep. “Marcellus, Marcellus!” The urgency of fear now. He knew he should sit back up, that he must show a strong front to Hamil. But there was simply no strength left in him.
“I’m sorry.” He managed. “Fabius, please meet Hamil at the gates. Don’t let him see past the battlements. Please, whatever it takes, find peace today. Whatever he wishes.”
“Of course.” Fabius pledged. “I never knew. . .of course I’ll meet him.” Then Fabius gripped his arm, as if to will some of his strength into his friend, and rode off in haste. The whole army watched in silence, in amazement, as their Consul, who had withstood the entire phalanx with five hundred men, now wept weak and broken upon his horse like a babe. They watched, and they loved him for it. For his weakness far more than his strength.
Fabius almost barged his way through the gate, his horse kicking up dust and people jumping out of the way. Before Hamil’s stately pace had reached the threshold, Fabius had galloped through and ordered the gates closed. Hamil might be willing to surrender now, but no miracle would cause him to surrender if he saw the state of the Illyrian camp. Fabius had been fighting in the thick of battle since the first day, but there was not a hint of fatigue in him. Some inner fuel kept him strong against the buffets of the world, so that he looked in a way ageless, beyond the reach of time to weary or decay. He had gone through the heat of every charge and emerged untouched, as though an angel watched over him. So it did not surprise Hamil when he saw Fabius, and not Marcellus, emerge to talk of peace. In a way, Hamil wasn’t sure which of the two he had truly been fighting against. Perhaps they were the same person, just wearing different faces for different roles. Hamil wondered if he had ever seen them both together.
“Greetings, in the name of the Sixth Eagle and all Illyria.” Fabius called, pulling his horse to a sudden stop. Dust billowed around the two, Hamil’s horse held expertly at ease.
Hamil let his flag drop, looking Fabius over. “Yes, greetings. But why are we standing here?”
Fabius looked behind his shoulder. “I’m afraid I could not ensure your safety within the gates. It would be best if you state your business without armies itching to take up arms.”
“Ah.” Hamil made a note of understanding, not really understanding. “I have come with terms. Are you willing to hear them?”
“Yes of course.” Fabius nodded. “We never asked for this war, and have no reason to extend it.”
“My men, they must be given all respect and care. You can escort them to ships, and bring them to the Necian shore. Or escort them to the shore, and let our ships take them.”
“They must be disarmed, your horses taken.” Fabius said.
“Of course, they wish only food and clothing and respectful care.”
“We will see to it.” Fabius had been wondering where they would find food for their own men, but this was more important. Better to feed the lions, than to feed men eaten by starving lions.
“Also, all the Lucians under my banner, they have the right to come with us to Necia. And all their families. And anyone of Necian blood in Lucia is free to come home.”
“Bandits and rebels must be dealt with, or we will have no more republic.” Fabius warned.
“Only the men with me. Only those who have stayed in Lucia in peace, and wish to leave in peace. No reprisals on the families of those who fought so hard for what they believed.”
“If we let all those with Necian ties leave now, you must renounce all claims to Lucia hereafter. All those that remain in Lucia are Illyrians, to the end of time.”
“Lucia is yours, to do with as you please. Any Necians who remain in Lucia have chosen their allegiance, and have no further ties to the motherland.” Hamil agreed.
“Also, we demand a restitution for all the damage you’ve done.” Fabius pressed. “Because of you, bandits pillage the land, and our crops are eaten to the quick in the dead of winter. Millions will die in the months to come, women and children who raised no hand against you. If we do not have food now, this war cannot end. This war is a war of survival, and if we must we will march on your land and take the crops necessary to feed our people.”
“Enough food to feed your people, until spring is come and new crops can be seeded.” Hamil agreed. “The Goddess knows that is a tiny price to pay to avert war.”
“And the shipments of corn to Scamander, they must be sent immediately, as soon as your men have boarded their boats, without pay. Our city is dying without this corn.”
“The regular shipments of corn to Scamander, plus enough corn and grain to feed your nation until the spring. Necia has enough reserves for all of this.” Hamil admitted more grudgingly.
Fabius blew out his mustaches, trying to hide his satisfaction. “These wars have stolen too many lives for too little reason. Tell your lords, we have no wish to fight children of a Goddess. The dogs press us at every border, from every side. There is more than enough darkness, for the light of the world to plunge against itself. Tell them the three nations should follow the example of our Goddesses, and work together to make something great—the glory of all our nations. No Goddess has sought the other’s glory. Why, then, are their children squabbling over the birthright they gave us all? It is not right, that brother should fight brother. We are all loved, and there is enough for all of us. Only Mahara could find a reason for war.”
Hamil shook Fabius’ hand. “The Goddess knows you’re right. I would that the wise held all the thrones of the world, but the loyal must still serve them. I will tell my lords. Peace be unto you, my brother. May we never meet again.”
“I pray so.” Fabius answered. The further away they were, the better.
Then the two took out ink and paper, writing down all the terms and numbers of the agreement, arguing over just how much food was required to feed just how many people, and how the wounded were to be tended, and whether any spoils taken were to be kept, until the two men signed. Neither of them actually controlled whether the peace would remain. But they both controlled the armies that were warring, and regardless of what the Senate or the College of Lords proclaimed, the armies were marching home. It was the first time either general had felt triumphant.
“So what will you do now?” Fabius asked, soothing a tired body with heated wine. Alcohol was used as a medicine, not for consumption, but Fabius had kept some for the occasion. After having to stop the fist of Necia seven days running and then negotiate the peace at the end, spiced wine beside a fire huddled in furs seemed just about right. Now all he needed was his estate in the vinelands of Lucia, a library, and a feather bed. He’d never allowed himself such luxury, as it softened the spirit as well as the flesh, but he thought it was about time to enjoy it. If he ever wanted to at all.
“A hot spring.” Marcellus decided firmly. “I want a manor built on a natural hot spring. And all I want to do is soak and soak and soak.” It was cold, and warmth seemed like the only necessity for heaven.
“A hot spring?” Fabius weighed it carefully. “No, I should do well enough with a private bath. And what will you do there? I think I will write a book.”
“A book?” Marcellus laughed. “And what will you write?”
“Strategy. It is about time somebody started listening to what I had to say.”
“Now that you single-handedly won a war and all.” Marcellus teased.
“What do you mean a war?” Fabius retorted, then became more serious. “The wars will keep going, Marcellus. And I’m running out of days to fight them. I thought last time it would be my last war. Now I think this time it will be. But someday it really will be an end, and I’ll have left nothing behind.”
“Like with Maximus. Winning wars until he died, and he never bothered to teach anyone else how it was done, or how to keep his gains, or how to do anything. After all the wars, all he gave us was more people to war against.” Marcellus agreed.
“We’ll keep winning, so long as somebody on top knows what he is doing. But who will follow us? There isn’t a single marshal I could trust a Legion with, much less an army.”
“A school, then. That’s your dream. A school to groom new commanders with the skills necessary to keep winning all the wars.”
“The republic is too large, Marcellus.” Fabius confided. “The rebellion in Lucia, that should never have happened. It happened because too much was happening for anyone to notice what was happening in Lucia. There was no oversight. We’re stretched too far, and so we can’t spare enough time to set anything right in the places we do have. Eventually we just treat the provinces like vassal states, and spend all our energy governing Illyria. The wars to come won’t have to be against foreigners. More and more, the wars will be within the republic, because we aren’t actually unified. Each province is still just a province, a people and culture of their own. Second-class citizens. We don’t care about them, we don’t protect their borders, we just tax them and punish them when they try not to pay. Why didn’t we stop the Necians in Lucia? Why did we wait until Illyria was threatened? Because Lucia was ‘foreign’ territory. It was only an invasion when they attacked us. I look ahead and I see nothing but war. It will tear the whole land apart, if we don’t have strong leaders with strong armies at all the flash points.”
Marcellus shook his head. “How does that solve anything? We can give the armies the best discipline, training, tactics, armament, and military spirit, and all they’ll do is win wars. Stomp fires out. That doesn’t reach the root of the problem, just the symptoms. Like a physician treating a sore throat and a runny nose and a cough, when the ailment is truly one thing behind them all. We need a way to stop the wars from ever happening, not just a way to win them once they’re begun.”
“Impossible. Wars will always happen.”
“I can’t believe that. Not and want to live. There has to be a way to end the wars.”
“And how will you end them in a hot spring?” Fabius prodded.
“I’m leaving Scamander, Fabius.” Marcellus decided. “I’m leaving Illyria. I’m going to build a house on the very edge of Mania, where they don’t even speak our language or worship the Goddess. I’m going to leave, and perhaps take some of the men who want to come with me. With their families, and farm. Perhaps we’ll set up a community that can resist the Ogre raids, so they don’t have to pay tribute to a foreign nation anymore. Perhaps we can teach them the ways of virtue. We shouldn’t try to defeat our own people. But to make them our own.”
“You can kill a person with the flick of a wrist.” Fabius said. “But to make a person takes twenty years. Are you going to spend the rest of your life converting a village of barbarians?”
“Maybe a single village of freemen is better than any number of slaves.”
Fabius laughed, finishing his wine. “Maybe. But for whom? The freemen, or the slavers?”
Publius wrapped his cloak tightly around him, making his way up the muddy trail that served as the village’s road. It was cold, and his shoulder ached. It wasn’t that it hadn’t healed. He was young and after a few months of spring it was ready to work again. But Publius doubted it would ever truly heal. His collarbone had been splintered by the force of the blow, and those slivers of bone were still cutting around inside of him. Nor could bone ever grow back to the strength it was before. It was his first wound, and it wasn’t going to go away, just like his father’s had never truly healed. Except father had a dozen scars to prove his valor. All Publius got was an aching stiff shoulder and arm, his skin still smooth as a babe. Publius was more annoyed that his injury wasn’t visible than that he’d been injured. It was enough, though. His devotion had been proven many times over in the battle of Gypsum Pass, and it had been enough to finally become a marshal. Of cavalry, no less. If there was one thing Illyria had learned of battle, it was the need for cavalry. If not for the enclosed and ripped up ground of the battle, the foot would have been devoured whole. As it was, half the number of mounted men had killed twice their number of almost helpless infantry. Not that the Illyrians intended to become mounted. There were more than enough Lucians and Patagonians and foreigners to serve the job. If there was another thing Illyria had learned, it was that legions were practically invincible so long as they held. All they had to do now is combine the solid core of the legion with the mobile speed and deadliness of the horse, much like the Necian army had already. Illyria had so admired the armies of the Necians that they had modeled themselves after it. Publius wondered if the Necians were currently modeling their army after the Illyrians. It would be a divine jest, if the two nations simply traded places on the fields of war.
A particular gust of wind made him huddle lower against the back of his horse, his shoulder protesting from the cold. Sometimes he wished he could cut it off just to stop it from complaining, but from talking to those who lost their limbs, somehow their invisible members still managed to ache. There was no escaping pain. It just went on and on. Life was feeling pain. Publius gritted his teeth and reminded himself how lucky he was to have escaped with a stiff arm. Those who had not been wounded in the war were dead. The Sixth Eagle had literally fought to the last man. His comrades and friends littered the earth. Nothing for it but to go on. He was still alive, and more, he could still fight. A little pain wouldn’t keep his arm from holding a shield. Now that he was a marshal, he could bring true glory to the Sunhand. Everyone could look and say, “Isn’t that Publius, the son of Marcellus? I see their blood still runs strong.” That is, if Marcellus would give up his demented retirement and stop being the object of shame in all Scamander. Which was why he was on this benighted muddy rocky trail in this endlessly cold north even at the end of spring. Someone had to bring him back, or the whole family would become the object of satires for the rest of time. When he had left, people were already barbing him for his incredible ability to surrender at the end of every campaign. For his ability to only ‘father’ children with blue eyes and blond hair. For his seemingly endless devotion to marching away from enemies. For his relationship with Fabius. Everything was being mocked and ridiculed while he was away. The whole family was being torn down and all he did was hide away in this wretched hovel. When the satires about Marcellus were growing dull, they had quickly shifted to Jania’s sick child and her ‘muddy’ husband, to Marcus’ education among all the other boys, even to Lydra’s tolerance when Marcellus was away. It couldn’t be that she loved him enough to stay for him. Not for the citizens of Scamander, who wished only to tear down all things bright and pure so as to not contrast with the manure of their own souls. No, obviously Lydra had some other lover, and obviously all the children were truly his kids. Because how else could you explain the Ogres the family had spawned? Marcus having perfectly brown hair and eyes wasn’t enough to stop the writers. There were already a dozen theories of how he was born being shouted through the streets.
Publius couldn’t be sure, but there was too much force behind this to just be the sudden upwelling of Mahara in their souls. Yes, it was from envy. And for that strange pleasure one got in seeing a great man revealed ugly and hypocritical. It was for all those things that made people seek other’s destruction. But the sheer ferocity and duration of it could not be explained. The patricians, damn their souls to hell, were somehow causing all this. They were afraid that Marcellus might reclaim the reins of power, and had decided to have him destroyed. Not that Marcellus had sought power after the war, but just that he could was threat enough. The whole city had become a viper’s den of conspiracy. Publius had escaped most of it laying on his back through the spring. But anyone who so much as moved was liable to be sued, or charged with some heinous crime. Exiled, or their property taken, or even killed. Eddies and currents of power-seekers through some invisible means would at some times win victory for one side, then other times shift to others. An invisible war for power, where people never knew where they stood until the city turned against them in fury or for them in praise. It was all based on who could keep the hearts of the fickle masses. And Marcellus, the only tried and true saviour of the nation, was the most powerful player of all. Which is why they were killing him, though he wasn’t even playing. Publius had to bring Marcellus back, to give Scamander peace again, to restore the honor of his family. If the patricians went on unchecked, Marcellus and his family would someday be the next victim. If Marcellus didn’t fight to keep his name, they would someday bring him to trial, and the people wouldn’t save him. His insanity was risking the entire family and leaving the entire nation in chaos.
Once Publius told him what was happening, showed him what needed to be done, surely father would relent. Father had to become tribune again. Publius had an uneasy thought in his mind, that the title of tribune was not what he truly sought. But he pushed that away. Father would return, and as tribune he would bring the senate in line, and the patricians would be stripped of their influence, and order would be restored. Of course that’s what he wanted. Illyria was the Republic. Only the Datians lived as slaves. Illyria would never fall to that. Never.
Finally his horse crested the hill and revealed the village below. An outskirt on the outskirts of Mania, they probably hadn’t even known they were part of Illyria. No tax collectors came this far, nor any of the legions. But father had, for a reason beyond anyone’s comprehension. And so had a great many others, who believed in him and would follow him anywhere. What father had not accomplished by law, giving the empty land to the overcrowded landless, he had managed by example. Now there were even a few cities spotting the north, thriving on furs and ores and timber and slaves. Publius shuddered for a moment at the thought of having been born an ogre. He was pretty enough that he would surely have ended up a catamite to some wealthy patrician. At least Illyrians could not be bought and sold. At least there was protection for those who served the Goddess. But it was ridiculous, trying to make Mania prosper when the very heart of Illyria was collapsing into decadence. How could the outlying provinces survive without the roots? All this work would come to nothing if Illyria broke apart into fractious violence. The entire Republic would split apart at the seams, and the Manians couldn’t hope to retain their identity when the Ogres came flooding back to the land of their ancestors. At worst they would be looted and enslaved. At best they would be ‘liberated’ from Illyria and return to the world of dogs, Bales, and Vosta till the end of time. Or maybe that was worse, and enslavement better. What was father thinking?
Dogs came barking and running around his horse, and Publius annoyedly kept his horse settled as it tried to kick free. Publius had an unsettling thought that it was an Ogre custom to have watchdogs running loose and mainly wild to guard the camps. For a moment he felt the dizziness of being beyond the edge of the world and into the darkness beyond. No, this is still Mania. Father wouldn’t be here if it weren’t still Mania. This is still Illyria. An outlying goatherd saw his plight and proceeded to run into the din and knock the dogs down, shouting and striking until they slinked away. Perhaps the dogs were tamer than the Ogres left them. That was a small consolation to almost being thrown off his horse and devoured.
“My thanks, boy.” Publius nodded. He was a marshal now, which meant he could call others boys whether they were twice his age. It wasn’t that he particularly wished to demean them, it was just that people needed to know their place, to respect authority, for the sake of discipline, which was the heart of victory, which saved the very lives of the people he was demeaning. Perhaps they didn’t understand the reasoning, but that was their problem, not his.
“We don’t normally have visitors, sir.” The sir obviously being added in response to being called boy. Publius wasn’t any happier about being elevated above the boy, but it was necessary to be respected in order to get results. “Well, at least we didn’t used to.” The boy interrupted himself. “Well, either way, why are you here? If you don’t mind me asking.” The boy quickly added the last part.
“My name is Publius. I’m here to see my father, Marcellus.”
The goatherd’s eyes widened with awe. “You’re his son? What must that feel like?”
“Cold, tired, sore, hungry, and almost eaten by wild beasts so far.” Publius smiled.
“I’m sorry!” The boy apologized. “It’s just, he’s such a great man. He’s been telling us all these great things. And last month when the ogres came he scared them off. Now we will have such a big harvest!”
“The Ogres, eh?” Publius warmed. “But you have blue eyes, I see. Doesn’t that make you an Ogre too?”
“Well your eyes are blue.” The boy judiciously pointed out.
Publius laughed. “That they are. But don’t tell the others, or they’ll catch me.” The boy laughed with him, a second after realizing Publius was joking. Publius watched the boy laugh and felt a pang up his heart. This boy has a father and it isn’t me. He pushed it away. There was no use in having a family that he couldn’t protect. Better that he protected a thousand such families, a million such, than start another and have them all destroyed. Just his stupid desires getting in the way of reason.
“So why aren’t we Ogres?” Publius feigned ignorance. At least he could pretend to be a father for a few minutes. It felt really nice.
“Because they’re sons of bitches.” The boy piped out proudly.
“Excuse me?” Publius blinked in shock.
“You know, they’re dogs.” The boy looked confused. “Not children of Illyria, but of bitches.”
“Ummm.” Publius chewed on his lip diplomatically. “Well just don’t tell them that.”
“Of course.” The goatherd shared a conspiratorial smile. “They don’t scare us anymore. Did you know that Marcellus once killed an entire tribe of ogres in an hour? Once they heard Marcellus was in the village, they haven’t come within a hundred miles.”
“Yes I know.” Publius smiled. “I was there.”
“Truly?” The boy gasped. “Not another joke?”
“The very bearer of the Sunhand banner itself.”
“What was it like? Did you kill any? Were they really scary?”
“Maybe if you brought me to Marcellus I could tell you on the way.” Publius promised. So they made their way into the village, Publius noticing the bright faces who didn’t seem to mind the cold. There was an odd mixture of Illyrian newcomers and Manian villagers, in a comforting way. Publius had always been the object of stares down south, from too many men and not enough girls. At least here people would only stare at him as Marcellus’ son. One day he hoped someone would stare at him because it was him. Another idle fancy.
“It was cold, for one thing. Blue cold. Snaking through my fingers and face, cutting at the lungs. I guess you know how that feels, up here. Like the cold was alive, stalking, looking for a weak point to attack. Slithering through your clothes and into your bones.” Publius watched children running in circles holding hands, the flowers of spring braided in girls’ hair. He watched boys running around hitting each other with sticks, or wrestling, or chasing the dogs. He watched girls playing intricate hand games in circles or whispering secrets in each others’ ears. It was as though he’d never seen happy children before. Some new thing under the sun.
“The mountains were like giant’s teeth, straight up. Piercing the sky like granite spears, their heads topped with snow. Down in the gorge, it was like all the wind just funneled in that ever felt like blowing. It was so cold, you could almost see the icy blue hands trying to rip off your cloak. The banner, though, it was flapping like something alive. Streaming back with the wind, the brilliant sun’s rays shining between the fingers of the fist clutching it. Gold on white, flapping as though it were challenging the wind. No matter how hard it blew, the banner would stand proud, dauntless against all the cold and all of nature’s power. And there I was, my hands numb around the polished wood, standing a foot above the rest of the Legion. The banner’s only rival being the flying Eagle itself.” Publius saw the bread being taken out of the huge ovens by sweating boys, hurried to the kitchens where just as frantic women served them. He saw tailors and cobblers mending winter clothing, spinsters preparing new gowns for the summer fairs. He saw men arguing over the best way to move trees, or the best place to set traps.
“And there came the barbarians, yelling and running, totally naked, like the cold didn’t even touch them. Like some sort of blue demons, painted and crying with their strange tongue. They were so large, towering over us. And with the abandon of beserkers. They didn’t even notice how well set we were for the charge. Just in rushing like a force of nature. A tempest. An avalanche.”
“What’s a tempest?” The boy mouthed in wonder.
“It’s a great storm that comes from the sea, wind so strong it can tear apart whole cities, waves knocking down cliffs, rain slashing so hard like daggers.”
“Were they really like a tempest?”
“Yes, even as fierce as that. Fiercer than the maddest lions.” Publius watched wives hanging out laundry, and children bent over tablets learning the arts of writing and geometry. He gazed with some astonishment upon a fresh-standing temple of Carian columns open to the air. A shrine to Illyria, this far north. Publius gazed at that temple with an incredible upwelling of pride. This is what he’d fought for, at Amelia’s Gorge. This is what made it all worth it.
“So in they ran, as fast as a hawk’s flight, and crash!” Publius slapped his hands together, the boy jumping in surprise. “Against the shield wall! Right into the swords! All they wanted was to break the wall, turn it into the melee which is all they know. But we didn’t break. The line held, and the barbarians kept pushing, and pressing, until there were so many that they couldn’t even use their spears. Squished together like. . .like grapes in the winepress! And there we were, holding them tight as a lass in our arms.”
The boy crowed in laughter, sharing the enjoyment.
“Then down from the forest my father came, silent as could be. The other half not even noticed or touched, rushing in from the rear! Trapped like grapes in a winepress, and Marcellus come to stomp them down! Before they could even turn around, squish! Out the wine came! A whole lake of blood for the bloodthirsty ogres to reap after the slaughter they’d sown. The whole tribe dead in an hour. And the whole time, the Sunhand flying overhead, proud and defiant. Not in the least bit touched.”
“Is Illyria really that strong?” The boy marveled.
Publius smiled. “She is when Marcellus is there. Father pretends not to notice. But he never loses, not against the longest odds. We fought against forty thousand men, and lost only five. Illyria protects him, and he protects Illyria.”
“Then Illyria will protect us from the Ogres too? Even tempests of Ogres?”
Publius laughed. “Do you see any?” Publius had finally come to a stop, looking across the water for his father. A natural hot spring. Publius couldn’t remember how long Marcellus had muttered about hot springs on the march. He gave a small smile of happy memories. There was something wonderful about people’s quirks. All these happy memories, even at the worst times. Everything eventually became a happy memory. Besides, it was cold, and a hot spring was sounding really nice right now.
“No. They all ran away like little rabbits!” The boy laughed in delight.
“Maybe someday you can make Illyria strong. Become a citizen and a guardian of the Goddess herself. Maybe someday they’ll be running away from you.”
“Do you think?” The goatherd tried to stand taller.
“If father would only spare the time to protect us from ourselves.” Publius muttered. Then he looked up. “But for now you have goats to tend, don’t you? They’ve had time enough, I should think, to have eaten the dogs.”
The boy laughed. There was enough joy in him to laugh at everything. Publius wished he could laugh like that. Or at least have a son he could make laugh like that. Or at least be able to trade such jokes with a love of his own. Idle fancies for another world. There was no room for joy in this one. The boy left, looking backwards over his shoulder in admiration. Publius wondered what would happen next to this boy. Would he one day become a legionnaire, just from the story Publius had told? How great an impact something so small can have on a life yet unlived! The tiniest thing, this tiny story, could change that boy’s life, which could decide between victory and defeat for Illyria, and one day be the one thing that had saved the entire world. Such a power he had to change the world, just with words alone. This same power would have to be enough to persuade Marcellus to return to the city he hated to save the people he despised. It was hopeless. He wished he had Marcus’ gift for words. Come to think of it, Marcus hadn’t ever persuaded Marcellus to change his mind either. Publius doubted anyone could. But he still had to try.
“Publius!” Marcellus called, sighting him standing tall. “All this way north to see your mother?”
Publius shook his head. “To see you, father! We need to talk!” The crowd seemed to mutter and stir to get a look at their hero’s son. Apparently he fit the bill, and the crowd watched on approvingly.
“Well you’ll just have to talk to mother anyway! I’ll join you shortly!” Then Marcellus sank beneath the water to avoid argument.
Publius sighed. A hot bath and a hot meal sounded nice anyway. Something else. Publius thought over the few words. Something else. He gathered his stuff and was given quick directions to the new manor. As he walked through the muddy streets prospering almost visibly he tried to catch that elusive quality he couldn’t quite place. He’d made it all the way to the slaves at the gate before he realized it. It struck him as strange, because he couldn’t remember seeing it before, but it was such a simple thing to see. Father was happy.
Publius was greeted as he walked in by old and loyal servants, many of whom had instructed him in wrestling and arms, schooling and virtue, law and justice. It felt good to see them again, in a way being a part of the household again. The floor was giving off heat from an ingenious channeling of the hot spring beneath the house. Floodgates were designed to raise or lower the amount of water flowing through, and a bathhouse built where the water reached the surface. It was extravagant, but Publius admired it. There was useless luxury and useful luxury, and this definitely fell under the latter. Marcellus had saved the entire Republic, and he deserved to be warm in the winter if that’s what he wanted. Publius looked up from his study of the house to find mother watching him amused.
“Mother.” Publius broke out into a grin and hugged her. “Young as always I see.”
“And you without a scar to boast.” Lydra teased. “Where have you been, farming flowers?”
“Almost.” Publius laughed. “Anything seems pastoral after the battle we fought. Now I’m guarding the delivery trains trying to resettle the refugees in Lucia. That whole place is such a chaos, the people had almost given up. It was amazing, when the wagons came in. Children sitting as still as death, seeing nothing, right up until we stuck soup in their hands. We’re bringing the whole land back to life wherever we go, and all the bandits left to Necia while the going was good. Or at least, they didn’t dare fight us after we’d defeated the Necians.”
“Defeated the Necians, you say?” Lydra rose and eyebrow skeptically. “Marcellus seems to think they never lost.”
“They’re gone, aren’t they? And not an inch more of ground to hold than when they came.”
“Why would they want more land, when they have the richest in the world? They seemed to have taken the true assets. Craftsmen, smiths, artisans, armorers. . .”
“We’re the better off without them, the traitors. Now Lucia is truly Illyrian. Not some sort of mongrel half-breed of the Goddesses.”
“Well, I suppose you’re right.” Lydra guided him to a chair and slaves started sticking food in front of him. Cheese and ham and hot buttered bread. He was probably eating the very bread he had seen taken from the oven minutes before. “So what brings you here, if the Legion is in Lucia?”
“Scamander has gone crazy, mother. I can’t tell you what they’re saying, it’s so horrid. Father has to come back to defend his name, our name.” Publius stopped to gulp down food as he explained. “Jania is scared to go outside anymore, Jacob to even be seen. At his home! With his wife! At least Marcus is teaching at the Academy, but more than enough rumors come from that to feel safe. There’s something amiss in Caria. The Legions of the East are the only one who have escaped all the battles. I don’t know what I can believe, but rumor is they’re jealous of our ‘glory.’ I could just see a leader jealous of father lead the army jealous of us to war just to make a name of his own. Pure insanity, and Marcus sitting in the heart of it.”
“Our family spread to the four corners of Illyria.” Lydra mused. “Like the seeds of daffodils blown to the wind.”
“I almost wish Jania had left for Necia. But she loves Scamander too much, no matter how it treats her. Girls love home more than life itself.”
“Oh?” Lydra laughed. “Then what am I doing here?”
“You’ve moved back home yourself, of course.” Publius bantered. “Back to the ogres. I bet you aren’t five miles from where you were born.”
“Alright then, what was I doing in Scamander?” She pressed.
“Spoiling all my theories, I guess.” Publius surrendered as he ate more ham. He hadn’t eaten so well since. . .he’d last been home.
“Confusing men is what we do best.” Lydra smiled. “Confusing ourselves has to be the close runner-up, though.”
Publius laughed. “Give me a simple straight edge and point me at a simple bad guy. War is the safest thing for boys. It’s the only time we know what to do.”
“So the girls sit safe at home and the boys march safely to war?”
“A perfect world, don’t you think?”
“Almost.” Lydra smiled. “So long as they keep marching safely back.”
“Well we’re really good at that whole avoiding danger part.”
“I’ll believe that when Marcellus doesn’t have to fight ten men at once for just a single battle.”
“Oh come now, he had five hundred other men and they were only ten thousand.”
“More like five hundred other men and a million guardian angels against ten thousand.” Lydra smiled.
“Then why retire? Why give up? When Illyria’s blessing is so obviously upon him?”
“Maybe you should ask him.” Lydra looked up to her husband standing at the doorway. Publius turned around, his shoulder protesting the motion. There was an immediate chilling of the room.
“Do the Goddesses support every war?” Marcellus asked. “Every victory part of the divine plan?”
“This war was.”
“This war was the result of incredible bravery led by incredible stupidity. Bless the courage, curse the waste of it.” Marcellus walked over and slipped an arm around Lydra without seeming thought.
“What I see is a nation that served you, and in return you abandoned.”
“I abandoned no one.” Marcellus answered forcefully. “The war was over. It was time to go home.”
“The wars are never over, father. You should know that the patricians are at war with us right now. Are we going to let corruption eat Illyria from the inside out?” Publius scoffed.
“Where does it end, son? When do we get to come home? Do we have to march against evil all our lives, and never do a thing of good? How much must we tear down before we can build?”
“Why build anything if it’s just going to be torn down?” Publius countered.
“Everything is lost with time.” Marcellus gestured with his free arm. “But I built it. I didn’t destroy it. When I build it, I can step back and say—‘I built that. I lived for life.’ When the destroyers come to tear it down, I can step back and say—“The building may be lost, but that it was built will never be. For a moment, life reigned supreme, and that moment has all the meaning of eternity.”
“You spout sophistry.” Publius shook his head. “If you don’t care about the nation anymore, then what about our family?” Publius looked at his embrace challengingly. “They’re going to leave us a mockery for all history. And if you don’t care about honor, then for Illyria’s sake, father, don’t you realize they’ll come for your life once they’ve destroyed your name? You’ve got to fight, or just sit there helpless when they come knocking at the door!”
“Some wars can’t be won.” Marcellus sighed. “I can no more defeat the demons as the goddesses themselves. We are all helpless against the evil of others. Suffering always comes, people always fall into temptation, people always hate one another. If only there were some war that could destroy Evil forever. If only it were that simple! That Evil would coalesce into some being that a sword could pierce!” Marcellus for a moment took on the fire that animated his son. Then realized it and looked back down.
“But it’s everywhere and nowhere. Behind and to the side. You can’t go to war with evil, son. Or else you’d have to kill everyone in the world. All you can do is refuse to take part in it. For here is the law of all that is Good: Far better to suffer evil than to cause it.”
“It is just as evil to suffer as it is to harm! The only good person is the one who refuses to do either, to be slaver or slave! For what good is a man who doesn’t value himself? What value in anything that isn’t worth defending?”
“The only evil one can suffer is a thing of dust. I might lose my cloak. Or my arm. My house. Or my children. In such a case, I’d defend those things with things of equal or lesser value. My life of dust to protect the life of my children. That is the nature of priorities.” Marcellus started pacing back and forth, restless in the captivity of his own philosophy.
“The evil that comes from harming others cuts far deeper, though, into the very soul. For on one side, you are losing what you love. On the other, you are losing love itself. And what is the worse life? One that watches beauty perish? Or one where the concept of beauty itself perishes? To lose things of value, or to lose the idea of value? To lose the flesh of a soul, or to tear the soul from your flesh? To see a living world die? Or to live as one already dead? To suffer, or to reject the divinity of yourself, of Man, and of the universe itself, and be nothing more than dust? Is it better to live one single moment with love, or an eternity of despair? Which is more glorious? A rock that sits and sits and sits, or a baby born and dead before the day is out? Which cause should we further? Should we strip the souls of the living and sit down and harden into rocks, just so that we can sit longer? Or should we live for life, as short and tenuous as it pleases? For I tell you, far better that I die in love with Freedom, than live as its destroyer. For on one hand, a thing of dirt ends, and the stars blaze on. On the other, the stars go out, and the dirt languishes in darkness forever. So I will not go back to Scamander, and fight for my rightful place. I will not escape the evil of death and dishonor by replacing it with the end of the Republic. I will not substitute the worth of my life for the worth of the freedom of all the lives that live and will ever live. I will not rip out my soul to give my flesh another ten years of sitting.”
“I didn’t ask you to become Emperor!” Publius shouted. “Can’t you see that freedom lives on only by the war to be free? Mahara will always make us enslave each other, but we needn’t sit helpless against him! This Republic has faced and destroyed tyrants before, we can do it again! But only because heroes were always there to meet them!” Publius rose from his chair to gain his full height.
“How else does this end?” Marcellus challenged. “Illyria stretched beyond its capacity, the provinces in rebellion, the City in chaos, the people squabbling, the Senate corrupt? We all know that there is only one end to this! But I will not be the ender! I will not be the one that cuts Her throat. They will have to kill me first.”
“You coward! Is that it, then? Better to give in, to die, to surrender, to escape? Illyria on the brink of disaster, and all you want to do is fall off the cliff first? Is that what life is? No! You don’t just sit and watch things end when you have the power to change them! Father, you’re the only one who can save the Republic! Abandon it now, without having tried, and you’re no better than the very ones who kill Her! Anyone who doesn’t stop something is guilty of it! The blood is on your hands!”
“I tried!” Marcellus cried out. “I tried! And all it got me was another war! There is no saving her, no mortal hand that can avert a flood, than can turn back the sea! I thought it was a matter of plugging a dike. But it isn’t, you see? This isn’t one problem or another, this is fate. This is history. This was decided long ago. And not a single thing can change it now.”
Publius watched his father stunned. He had never seen his father defeated by anything. And yet here he stood stating that he had already lost. Father couldn’t lose. He was invincible. Not this. Never despairing. Never Zakine’s dog. He sat back down in his chair so as not to fall, rubbing his forehead with his hands. In a muted voice, he spoke from under his hands. “Then if it must happen, at least you should lead it. If you aren’t emperor, than whom? At least you can channel it, guide it, minimize the harm and maximize the good.”
“It isn’t a matter of weighing out costs and benefits. It’s a matter of principles.” Marcellus sighed with the pain of watching Publius pained.
“Principles serve men, men don’t serve principles.” Publius regained his voice.
“If we were gods, perhaps we could know when to serve our principles and when to abandon them. Perhaps we would always know what was best and we could calculate everything that will ever happen because of our decisions. Perhaps we could always serve the best interests of humanity even when we did those things most abhorrent to Man. But we are not gods, and we can’t know. So I will serve the ideal of Man, which I do know, and do love, as best I can. And not the reality of humanity, which I can’t know, and can’t serve in any way.” Marcellus turned dramatically in his pacing.
“The blind can’t point the way to the blind! A principle I can know, and serve, and follow. A cause I can’t. A cause man was never destined to know. A cause can never tell us what is the right thing to do. A cause can never turn out the way we wish. If you abandon principles for a cause, you have abandoned the greatest wisdom of humanity for the blindest pursuit of futility, at the cost of your own soul, and to the suffering of the whole world.”
“So you’re just going to watch the world go to hell, and these words be your only companion?” Publius looked up angrily. No, father hadn’t despaired. He had rationalized his own cowardice. He wasn’t broken, he was hiding from the world. As though he were finished with it. As though the world had failed him, and not he the service to the world.
“You’d be surprised how easy heaven is found.” Marcellus remarked. “When good people do good things in good ways.”
“This village, this is your answer to the future? A tiny light in the midst of howling darkness?” Publius scoffed. It was a stupid waste. Just a stupid village in the middle of nowhere.
“This village, and all the others where good people keep living for the Good. Lights will always shine so long as people live for the light.”
“You would save this one village, and abandon the rest of the world?”
“Perhaps I’m letting both the village and the world live as it wishes to live, and choosing where to live accordingly.” Marcellus rubbed his forehead wearily. As though he’d had this argument too many times with himself already.
“That’s the coward’s way. The strong make life good, they don’t escape to where life is good.”
“Happiness cannot be forced or seized. Love cannot be taken or caught. Good cannot be made. It can only be embraced, son. All good things already exist, no mortal hand can create them. We can only embrace them. We can only choose them.”
“Well you go on soaking in your hot spring, then.” Publius stood up angrily. “While I return to feeding the starving and protecting the weak from bandits and thieves. And Illyria can decide which of us loves life the more.” He looked at this room with hatred. This entire place. He had to get out. Publius was making for the door the moment he thought it. Gone before another word could be said.
He hated words. They never made sense. All he wanted was to go back and do things again. That was the only world that he could live in. The world of actions and results. That was the only rightful place for men. Words were the delight of sloth. Words were the dogs of Sheole.
“What nonsense is this? A bet?” Zeno made a note to show his idea of that.
“Yes, a bet.” Marcus replied in good cheer. A smile covered his face, the excited playful look of a child with a new game. “Too many people think we speak only out of leisure, the idle games of idle hands. Well then, surely if money is on the line they will see that we speak for good reason. Whosoever proves his side shall win the bet, and there we will have industrious hard working philosophers earning their bread with hard-earned minas. If money alone can determine the worth of one’s activity, than we shall set a value to our work, and thus our work shall be valued.”
“But that’s ridiculous!” Zeno protested. “The work of philosophy is the highest of all, there can be no value set to it. It is Truth itself!”
“Well, certainly She won’t mind, then, if she deserves some millions of mina, to provide her with a simple few hundred. I should say that if she is valued so highly, it is strange that not a single pence is traded for her.”
“Because knowledge is free to all, not to be bought and sold. The purity of the thing, Marcus! You’ll make us the laughing-stock of the Academy!”
“Better that than the laughing-stock of the world. You realize that philosophy is like theatre to the onlookers? That we are performers, and the people have a good laugh as they watch before they go about their business?”
“Yes of course, but some stay. Some stay and listen.”
“We were all those boys who stayed once, and it’s grand to find more.” Marcus agreed, still a boy but no longer treated as one. “But eventually even we begin to laugh at ourselves, and then where will the state of Reason be? Should we surrender now and let the priests tell us how the world is?”
“Of course not. But how will a bet change things?”
“I don’t know.” Marcus laughed.
“You’re still a mischievous rogue.” Zeno said. “How on earth did Scamander, the capital of discipline, produce something so wild?”
“There was enough discipline in my family. By the time they got to the third child, they were tired of raising us. So I just sort of raised myself.” Marcus gave a sly grin. “I’m a lesson to the parents of the world.”
“Yes, but in what sense?” Zeno remarked.
“I guess that’s for them to judge.” Marcus laughed again, his eyes widening to see the throng. “Look what a crowd our money has brought!” He exclaimed delightedly. “Hurry, Zeno, to the stage!” Marcus left his older companion behind as he sprinted for the gathering. He had loved crowds since he was a child. All he wanted was to be at the center of this one, and all the others. Marcus threaded his way through the crowd, far too young, they assumed, to be anything but an onlooker. Until he took his first steps upon the stage, and the crowd began laughing at the spectacle. Marcus pulled out the bag of his wealth from his cloak, however, and gave a bright smile and bow to the crowd. Being of the Sunhand, Marcus had never been poor, though he had lived as such. It was just a matter of using money to achieve important ends. Not in saving it for nothing, or spending it on nothing.
“Friends, we are gathered here today to see a rare spectacle under the sun!” Marcus announced, in his clear musical voice that he could project to the edges of the Amphitheatre. “Today philosophy will determine a definite winner and a definite loser, and the victory will have a definite reward! Today philosophy joins the rest of society in the quest for wealth, the only worthwhile end of man!”
The crowd laughed again, knowing that Marcus was mocking them and not minding. He was too sweet and happy to think of it as any sort of malice. It was a joke, on how the world worked, not on them, and thus it was to be enjoyed.
“I stand ready to defend all my claims with my money pouch. The crowd shall give its approval. There will be no confusion, no resentment, whoever wins the ear of the masses is surely the champion of Reason!”
The crowd laughed again at Marcus’ obvious irony. Already they were entertained, this was exactly what they needed. Some foolish character to delight them for a time before they went their way. Tonight they could all tell about the young philosopher who tricked money out of the duller tongued.
“So let us begin. Of all you philosophers hiding amidst the crowd, surely one of you dares to believe that he is right and I am wrong, on any subject we may approve of?”
Zeno quickly started the contest, not letting the momentum weaken. “I challenge you!” He stepped into the ring, giving a performer’s bow to the crowd. “On a simple thing: I believe there is a soul!”
The crowd cheered in response.
Marcus gave a wry grin at his friend and turned to the crowd. “On this I must say I should hope to be the loser. For better to have lost a wager than the souls of all humanity!”
The crowd laughed in agreement.
“Nevertheless, I will gird my loins. For money, my friends, is the only object of worth in this world. And for it I must fight with tooth and nail, tongue and wit, though it proves I have no soul at all!”
Again they laughed for his irony. Marcus had endeared himself to the crowd, though his arguments would be those most hateful to them. It was the art of a performer to not be taken seriously. That was how comedies were allowed to say what they would, and that was how Marcus intended to speak his mind as well.
“For in nature one can see many laws, whose natural extension leads to three inseparable conclusions: everything that has happened has a cause. There is no smallest point, that cannot be divided yet further. And there is no end to time or space, but it stretches in every direction forever. For imagine that space had an end, the question begs only “what then?” For space to be limited would require a limiter, and in so-doing the limiter itself would stretch into infinity. For time to have a beginning, would require something before then to begin the beginning, and thus time stretches into infinity. For space to reach an indivisible object, the object must still take up space, and thus be divided so that it takes even less space. But in always having space, there will be smaller amounts of space into infinity. For something to happen, there is always something that caused it. Bread does not bake on its own. People do not suddenly begin to float. Always things happen only as natural results of determined rules. And thus, there can be no determiner that is not himself determined. However far one asks why, like a child, there is always an earlier cause that the why can be asked of again. Where, then, is a soul to be found? It can have no beginning, no beginner, it can begin nothing, it can’t exist as the indivisible, and thus, immortal pure Self that we could all wish to be. The laws of nature strike down the soul as sheerest fantasy.”
The crowd watched entranced. Marcus had seemed so sure. And none had an answer, because they could all see in nature the very laws he presented.
“These are all very good points in the world of nature.” Zeno agreed. “But existing consanguineously with the laws of nature are the laws of morality. None can defy the existence of your laws before their eyes. However, nor can they defy the truth that all humans feel the need to seek and do the right thing. For this awareness of a proper manner of living would presuppose a free will that can choose the right thing upon finding it. For a free will to exist would require something free of the very laws of nature itself, which states that all of nature is an effect of an earlier cause. Moreover, that there is a right and wrong thing to do, and it is not just a matter of debate, proves that there is an essential nature to all humanity that shares the wisdom of right and wrong. Murdering, stealing, lying, the world over is wrong. Nurturing, growing, helping, the world over is right. Within ourselves we find that our nature is filled with a divine wisdom, a universal wisdom, and a free will to follow it. For such a thing to be requires not only a soul, independent of nature, but a Supreme Wisdom, also independent of nature, to have created our very souls, that reflect this divine wisdom upwards to Heaven itself.”
The crowd cheered enthusiastically for this, the more violently for its earlier fear of defeat.
“What, then, is the nature of freedom?” Marcus asked. “But to have no limits whatsoever? For us to have a free will, how can this free will have pre-existing knowledge of right and wrong, for would that not be a limit to its freedom in deciding that of its own? To have a free will, it must be free of any influence, whatever its source, or it is not free. And if we all contain the seeds of a divine wisdom, how is it that we falter at our every steps, never knowing in which direction to go? And if we, or our souls, are the creation of a Supreme Wisdom, why then is this wisdom lost on her creation? To the point, even, that we know not that we were created at all? For nothing perfectly Good can create anything but Good. For nothing perfectly wise can create anything but perfect wisdom. Perfection is capable only of perfection, by definition. For that is the meaning of perfect! And though you may be perfect, my friend, I find myself two inches shorter than I should desire, not nearly as rich, and far too weak.”
The crowd laughed approvingly, even though his point was against them.
“Grant, then, that we have a soul.” Marcus pressed. “Though it exists nowhere in nature, but is discovered only through reflection into our own existence as a prerequisite. This soul enigmatically enters into our flesh, guides it for a time, none too well, then leaves it again when the flesh expires. Something like a mercenary who joins the army in good times and leaves in bad, having done nothing for the cause inbetween.”
The crowd laughed again. Carians were notorious mercenaries, and proud of it.
“Why did this soul ever bother to become enfleshed in the first place? What purpose does it serve? For a soul must be immortal, and thus unchanging, and thus already complete. It would gain nothing from living, just as it loses nothing in dying. An unwanted houseguest may come for a time to eat your food, kiss your daughters, or enjoy your entertainment, but will we accuse our souls of sporting in this realm for the pleasantries of the flesh? Surely our souls have no desires, being fulfilled and complete in themselves. For a soul to exist, by definition, it would never act, but only be. And thus souls cannot enter and leave the world of nature like passing strangers, like journeyman on some quest, because that would degrade our souls to something as poor as the very flesh they inhabit.” Marcus paused to give Zeno the field. The friendship between them was obvious to everyone, which kept the words from holding any sting to the onlookers, for they saw that the participants meant none.
“Such an argument would also proclaim the Goddesses, being perfect, as incapable of action as well. Are we to believe that the result of perfection is non-existence, a state of nothingness, stretching into infinity, like the stars above?” Zeno retorted. “Capable only of sitting, like some dead rock? If the goal of thought is Truth, then will thought cease when Truth is found? And if so, which of the two would we more willingly lose? A state of perfection cannot be a state of rest, of completion, for that goes against all our ideals of a perfect life. A perfect life is one of meaning and value, action and creation, a continuous quest for greatness that is never fulfilled. A perfect being does not lay down and die, it keeps climbing, not towards a state of completeness, but towards one of greatness, a desire that can never be fulfilled. Our souls are not here for sport, but as the source and receiver of all good things. All that lives, loves, and all that loves, lives. Love is not found in the flesh, but in the soul alone. That our souls are the bonds between all lovers everywhere, is the greatest proof of the soul, and also the greatest proof that our souls are alive, in the most basic meaning of the word, that it desires. What is the reason for Nature’s creation? As the world of order where creation is possible. For in a world of chaos, nothing can last or hold, but all is vague and without form. Nature is the canvas of Perfection’s art. Here alone can greatness be created and here alone can it be admired. Only within Nature is Beauty, only within life is Love. We are the vessels of our souls, the eyes, the witnesses, to the glory, the divinity, the unity, the perfection of reality. It is for this awe that even Goddesses joy in partaking. This awe is seated not in our flesh, but in our souls. And that is why we, in feeling this divinity, are not the vessels of divinity, but the very divinity we discuss, and profess not to know!”
The crowd roared again in approval, Marcus’ arguments left in seeming tatters. The argument raged from justice to faith to suffering, weapons hurled upon one another like thunderbolts and hurricanes, leaving the crowd silent with awe and anticipation. The philosophers seemed to be the champions of truth itself, wresting it from each other’s hands. Whosoever spoke last held the field, until the other returned with a greater army and won the day. The bet had lost all significance in anyone’s minds. That evening was spent staring and listening for the sake of the wisdom the philosophers themselves valued. In that evening, Marcus had reached more people with the value and worth of thought than the fifty years of lectures to young boys had before. And though Marcus eventually had to hand over his money pouch to the great zeal of the crowd, he had scored the most dramatic victory for the Academy since the days of its founding. His smile throughout, his breathless enthusiasm in defeat, the light in his eyes as he bowed one last time, was proof enough that all who loved reason were the winners today.
“I tell you the earth circles the sun.” Marcus continued, his dry throat cracking from the argument as they walked towards home. The Academy was home, and they loved it. Some of the people there traveled the world practicing their art, only coming and going intermittently to report their successes or have fun with friends. Others tended to the gardens or the buildings and just enjoyed listening to the conversations and the companionship of the grounds. The sense of community, of belonging, extended to all the branches and all the people who served the arena of thought. Some came occasionally, busy with real jobs, or true families. Others lived together, closer lovers than those that went home to wives. For theirs was a unity that contained the whole of their lives. The same goal, the same work, the same circumstances, there was no separating them in any way. One was always beside the other, in work and play, day and night. Many loved Marcus with that fierceness, the prestigious child of the most prestigious family of Illyria, and also the brilliant showman that leant a face and a voice to the interests of them all. Marcus could not return their love, though, which hurt him in a deep way that he didn’t let show. He was here under his father’s will, not against his. And as such, it would be a betrayal of his trust to defy him. It would almost have been easier if father were totally against him, for then rebellion would be against an enemy, and not a father. As it was, he was fenced in by devotion and the very trust that allowed him to violate it. Short of a few shy kisses, Marcus was the example of celibacy for the priests. He loved Zeno, and Zeno loved him. But there it stopped, as it stopped everywhere. It was for the better, perhaps. More people would listen to him without prejudice if he did not offend their sensibility. He lived for the crowd, more so than any particular person. He would not give them up for anyone.
“It’s as clear as day that the sun circles the earth!” Zeno protested, jarring Marcus back to reality. “If the earth were in motion, we would feel it. Take a ball, and put a coin atop it. Then rotate the ball: the coin falls off! Why aren’t we being flung off the earth?”
“We all know that the sun is the source of energy of the earth. At day it is warm, the plants live off light, and so forth.” Marcus explained. “Now how could such a small ball give off that much energy, for time immemorial? Heat and light is the product of fire, and we all know that fire consumes matter. The sun is a giant ball of fire that has been burning since ever, a strong enough fire to be just a circle in the sky and still give life to the whole of the earth. For such a fire to burn, and keep burning, and produce such an effect at such a distance, would require a humongous object, far larger than the earth, than ten times earth!
“The moon, however, we know to be a third the size of earth, as we can see the earth’s shadow exceeding the moon in times of eclipse. Now, every month a full orbit is made concerning the moon, as we can see by the phases, and every year an orbit is made concerning the sun, as we can see by the seasons. It follows, then, that the larger an object the slower its period of revolution. Now it comes to simple mathematics: The moon is a third the size of the earth, and travels at twelve times the speed in its orbit than the mysterious other orbiter x, which is yet to be seen as the earth or sun. Now, if the sun made an orbit of the earth twelve times as slow as the moon, it would be only twelve times the size of the moon, only four times as large as the earth. But the sun is much larger than that. It would take more like ten years for the sun to circle the earth. But we know that the orbit is made in a year, and thus the object must be more massive than the moon, and yet not as massive as the sun. This object could only be the earth!”
“But if the earth is only three times as large as the moon, how is it twelve times as slow?” Zeno asked.
“Perhaps the earth is more massive than the moon. Also, the earth must cover a much larger area to orbit the sun than the moon does the earth. For we all know that the sun is further away than the moon. Now imagine the sun making such a large orbit at such a size in a year! It would be like watching a fat man run ten times as fast and far as our best Olympians.”
“This law, that things move around their orbits in proportion to their size, is all well and good. But it is far more theoretical than the basic fact that we are not moving, when the earth in your case must be zipping around the cosmos. Why, if we were moving, do we not see the stars shift in relation to us? Throughout the year, they maintain their same locations, save for the wandering stars. If we were in motion, they would move as well.”
“Not if the stars were so far away we could not perceive any shift. Besides, these wandering stars also require explanation. How can these stars at first move in one direction, then turn and start moving the other? When a ball is thrown, does it ever stop and reverse its course through the air? Why, then, would the heavens act in such a peculiar manner?”
“Perhaps the universe is a very peculiar place.” Zeno maintained.
“Impossible, Illyria did not create a self-contradictory universe, but one of perfect unity for us to observe and discover. We have to believe that, or we can never know anything, for it could always change tomorrow. There must be a unified order to the universe and everything within it. The motions of all objects must share the same principles.”
“This coming from the boy who disproved the Goddess hours before?” Zeno raised his eyebrows in mock surprise. Marcus laughed at the reminder.
“These wandering stars, they do not make sense if they are orbiting the earth. It would make as much sense for the sun to change its course in the sky. The only thing that makes sense is that they are all orbiting, along with us, the sun. Picture a chariot race, and all these stars along with us racing circles around the sun. On those that must make a larger circuit on the outer edges than those who rush around the inside of the arena, at first they are seen as moving in the same direction. Picture yourself watching the other chariots as you pass them by, though they are still moving in the same direction, it is as though they have stopped, and started going in the other direction, in relation to yourself, which has overtaken them and is now leaving them behind due to our more inward position. This fits how we see the wandering stars exactly. It is obvious that these other bodies are just further out than we, all of us orbiting the sun. Now, for the earth to sit still, the transition from day to night would require the sun to make a full circuit around the earth in the passage of a mere 24 hours, and so would the moon, and so would all the stars in the sky be racing at this incredible speed. It is obvious that the earth must be rotating, and thus only our perspective is moving while the rest stays virtually still. For place me on our chariot once again, and you can just stand still a distance off. On my rushing chariot, I can see you half the circuit, but on the other half I’m facing the wrong direction. Now, either I can remark upon my chariot how quickly you on foot manage to run around me, that in fact, how quickly the whole stadium seems to run around me, or I can realize that I alone am moving and the motion is only an illusion of perspective. Just like when I spin in a circle.” Marcus spun around to elaborate the point.
“The earth is rotating, or the whole universe is sprinting at unimaginable speed, the greater and greater the further away. The Goddess would seek simplicity, we can only hope, and thus the earth is rotating. If the earth is already moving as quickly as that, and we maintain the illusion of stillness, then obviously it can also be revolving around the sun and the illusion be maintained. For now picture yourself upon your chariot, except closed off from senses of the outside world. In this little bubble of you and the chariot, you are at rest in relation to the chariot, though the chariot is zooming along fast as ever. Just so, because we are moving at the exact same speed as the earth upon which we stand, we are at rest in relation to it.”
“Yes but if you move fast enough the chariot will throw you off of itself as it curves, which the earth is doing in rotation and revolution. Why doesn’t the speed of motion throw us off the earth?” Zeno complained.
Marcus jumped, landing lightly. “Here I detached myself from the earth, and yet I did not leave it.” Marcus marveled. “A rider stands atop his chariot, just as a coin balances atop a ball, but there is no connection between them, and thus they fall off easily. However, it is impossible to fall off the earth, though the forces are much stronger against us than in the earlier cases. The force of our angular motion, and of our jumping, and all other activity, must be trumped by a yet greater force that holds us to the earth. Will a rider be flung from his chariot if he clutches tightly to his reins? Well imagine a hold so strong that nothing can be flung off, that we are clutched tight to the bosom of the earth, so tight that it pulls us back to the ground almost the moment we jump away from it. This same force is what holds the moon around the earth, and the earth and all the wandering stars around the sun. Always the larger objects holding the smaller, and never the other way around. Since the earth is much larger than us, we are caught within in, more firmly than any forces trying to knock us away from it.”
“A fundamental force that guides the motions of all the objects of the universe?” Zeno scoffed. “That’s a more fanciful invention then the whole of the universe racing circles around us.”
“Without a force of attraction, why does anything stay together? We should quickly all be flung apart to the ends of the universe.”
“With this force of attraction, shouldn’t everything be gathered together in one place, and no spaces left inbetween?”
“It’s not so strong as that.” Marcus defended, reaching the turning point to his room. Many of the boys lived communally with meals, baths, housing, and the like. It brought them together, and was cheaper, one of the prime concerns of people who did not spend time working for their money.
“I fear in solving one mystery you have only created a greater.” Zeno commented. “But then, you were never one to sheer off from the search only from the immensity of the task. I wish you luck.”
“My thanks.” Marcus smiled. “And if you wouldn’t mind, could you offer lunch to me these next few weeks? I find myself low on funds.” Then he winked, and Zeno laughed. And the two separated with a small sigh to their separate homes.
Marcus made his way to his bed, but he wasn’t in the slightest capable of sleep. His mind was abuzz with thoughts. Zeno was right, if there were a universal force of attraction, then given infinite time, the only possible result would be the matter of the entire universe collected into a single mass. Would that mean that the universe had to be still young, and thus an obvious product of a Creator? Or would it mean that he was just wrong, because the universe was ageless, and this force, however slight, given enough time, would have triumphed long ago. Infinitely long ago, in an infinite scale of time. But it had made so much sense. It was amazing how another’s slightest reflection of a matter could reveal more than any additional thought one could have. Yet another thing to think about. Marcus lay in his bed, his eyes staring upwards, the thoughts crowding each other for attention. There was something he had mentioned in his argument, but hadn’t gotten to expand. What was it? He needed to write that down. Marcus got up and went quickly to his desk, biting his ever-ready pen.
“A free will can not discover morality, but only invent it. For if the will were under the sway of a law of morality that transcended it, then it would no longer be free. Thus morality must never exceed its creator. Whatever method we devise, it must always remain a method, gained through reflection and experience, and never a command. We cannot proceed as strong-arms of the law, bullying our ways into the homes and lives of all those beneath us. But as humble guides, who create trails for our own benefit to pass through the forest, and invite all those who find the trail pleasant to follow or even walk beside. No matter how well beaten the trail becomes, it can never be the one and only path of virtue, but only a path. People must always reach this assurance, this knowing, and others are all too willing to provide it. But those who provide it do so only as Mahara’s dogs, out of the desire for worship and the desire to control. And those willing to obey do so only as Sheole’s dogs, out of desire for assurance and security to the point of relinquishing the very freedom that makes them divine. The free will necessitates ignorance as to what to do, for if there were a fundamental law that answered this question, then the will would be subject to law in the very area of its supposed freedom, and not the determiner of it. We are free not only to obey or disobey the law, for in that case one could say that all laws are not binding as we can disobey them. We must be free to be the arbiters of the law, and in that way only is freedom real.” Marcus chewed on his pen, wondering how real freedom had to be. People would perfectly well compromise the freedom of the soul in order for the realization of a fundamental answer to the soul’s direction. He could not leave that to a judgment of value. There had to be a way to disprove it logically, and not just appeal to ideals that ran contrary to it. Marcus sat back and thought, not knowing how to argue more effectively when he himself was already convinced. He needed Zeno to talk it over with. Marcus thought for a moment of walking over there. It was so appealing. All he had to do was get up and walk over there. Why was he still sitting? What kind of morality set itself against love? And yet, if he loved so much, then why would it be necessary to be anything but pure? Marcus steeled himself as he sat, staring at his paper but no longer seeing it. True love wouldn’t think of beds at night. True love would feel safe in the open air of day. Not creeping through the shadows. This was not the way.
What was, then? Surely there was a right way. There always had to be a right way given any situation. Souls desired love just as bodies did food. Was this desire, then, a limit to their freedom? No. Because a soul could not enslave itself, because it was itself. Anything within the soul was also the soul, and there was no such thing as one part of one’s Self mastering another, for it was all one Self. Marcus rubbed his forehead wearily, then pulled his hand back. How many times had he seen his father do just that? A ghost of a smile graced his face as he fell into memory. I wonder how much of father is with me that I don’t even notice, but he must see and love all his days? I wonder if he ever thinks of me anymore, or if I’m devoted to an illusion. I wonder if anything I do matters in the least to him. But that was just escaping responsibility. When someone entrusted his cane to another, though he didn’t return for it in fifty years, abrogating the responsibility of trusteeship was still a betrayal. Marcus thought wryly on how Anaxagoras had promised happiness as the fruit of thought. Yet it seemed thought’s highest endeavor to deny happiness to those who served it. Perhaps because happiness was not Reason’s goal. Or perhaps because happiness was for those who delighted in the Good, and not in evil. All he could do was forbear from his desires, when a good person would desire the very things to be pursued. Some sort of divine test, to give him such powers of thought and array them against such a rebellious body. Some sort of question to see which prevailed. Such a strange world the gods must live in. They alone knew all the things he had ever wished to know, and yet they had inspired the very curiosity which they deigned not to satisfy. Like some sort of torture. Though he could only pity the animals that were so happy around him. Perhaps the gods and their offspring shared something unique, the will to put things higher than pleasure. Perhaps to the gods pain was a gift, the crucible of souls, the messenger of the worth for which one suffered. For the value of things was determined solely by the suffering necessary to achieve them. That Truth was the most painful quest of all was Illyria’s way of saying it was also the most valuable. Something like that. Marcus looked wearily at his bed and wondered how many more nights he could divert his body with these tricks of the mind. This night at least. Tomorrow I can fight again. But tonight I am the victor. See, my Goddess? We are not so weak after all. I have won again. I have won all my life. Though you should defeat me tomorrow, that would be only one defeat, and the streak of victories left untarnished in rows of years behind. You could never be as victorious as that.
The door barged open, Marcus jumping in surprise as he tried to escape from his chair. “Marcus!” The man called, and suddenly it was no stranger but his brother standing before him. “I’m glad you’re still awake.”
“What are you doing here?” Marcus asked, finally clambering out of his chair. “Is there something wrong?”
“With our family? Yes. But I’m more concerned about the world falling apart right now.”
“How so? I mean about our family.” Marcus quickly stressed his priority.
“Well, nothing between us. But Scamander wants our heads. You’re a scandalous profligate catamite. Jania and I are bastards. Lydra’s an adulterer. Father’s a coward and a traitor. The whole family is being torn apart.”
“Well so long as its Mahara and not Sheole doing it.” Marcus smiled wryly. “But wait, go back, why are you here?”
“It’s madness. I’m here to lead an invasion into Datia.”
“But we just got out of a war! We barely escaped from starvation just this spring!” Marcus protested.
“Caria didn’t. These legions haven’t fought at all, and there’s only been prosperity. After all the other legions taking the glory, are they going to sit here and twiddle their thumbs?”
“But surely the City will rein them in! How can Illyria sanction this war?”
“Because, how else but through military victory will the Consuls become popular with the masses? All the wars have been for Marcellus. They need glory too. Glory enough to return home with enough riches and fame to seize the dictatorship.” Publius pronounced the last word with a sense of desperate energy.
“But that’s madness! There’s no way we could defeat Datia! Not after what we’ve been through.”
“There is a way.” Publius contradicted. “And it would be Marcellus leading this army. He always finds a way to win. And it’s the only way to stop Crassus from returning from the war as emperor. But father won’t listen.”
“Father always listens.” Marcus said.
“Well.” Publius chewed his lip. “Never to reason.”
Marcus laughed. “Never to our reason. He follows his own pretty well.”
“He follows his own far too well. He’d rather follow his principles than save the entire world.”
“What matters more, the fate of a single immortal soul or the entirety of mortal flesh?”
“Don’t you give me sophisms.” Publius cut short. “I can’t escape these stupid sophisms.”
“This is Tethys.” Marcus reminded him humorously.
“Yes well, fathers and old wise men are allowed to say these things because we have to respect their opinion no matter how insane. But I don’t have to put up with it from kid brothers.”
“Alright, I won’t give you sophisms.” Marcus promised. “But why are you here? Sophisms are all I can give. That or poems. Though I haven’t written any in a while.” Marcus seemed a little sad about that.
“Don’t you see?” Publius turned on him. He had such an energy of tension around him, it was a wonder he didn’t explode. Like he was trying to hold on to everything and it was all running in different directions, and only his grip was keeping it from splitting apart. But brother, Marcus thought, all it will do is split you apart along with it. “War with Datia! Even if we manage to win, which we won’t, it’s the death knell to the Republic. You have to talk to father.”
Marcus closed his face. “You know I can’t make any difference.”
“Well try! For Illyria’s sake, this nation is going to die! Doesn’t anyone care? Am I the only one who wants to do anything?”
“Why are you participating in this?” Marcus suddenly wondered.
“Because it’s my duty.” Publius replied, looking away. Then he forced himself to look at Marcus again. The two stared at each other for an unbroken minute. “Because.” He finally sighed. “Because just maybe I can change the future. If I’m there, I can win. If Illyria blesses me like father. Just maybe I can win this war, and Crassus won’t come back to claim the glory.”
Marcus looked at his brother with wide eyes. Like a stranger he’d never known before. “Then what? You do?”
Publius steeled himself. “Scamander is a pit of vipers. But Crassus, if he wins this, will have the edge on all the rest. He’ll have enough support to become Emperor. But if I win this. . .” Publius looked away again. “Marcus, are you with me?”
“I promise I’m not against you.” Marcus said.
“I suppose that’s the best I can get from a sophist.” Publius smiled wryly. “Alright then, I haven’t said this to anyone. But Marcus, I’m the eldest son of the greatest man in the nation. I know that means little right now, when I’ve done nothing. But people will think of it. Father refuses to march on Datia and come back as emperor. But if I can, then I will. God knows the last thing I wanted was to be emperor. But if it is me or Crassus and that’s the only decision left, I have to do this. And I’m the only one who can do this now. All the glory of my father will rest on me. They’ll even think I’m becoming emperor only because Marcellus is too old, but under his tutelage and by his will. I can return as triumphant leader, as the end to corruption, and as the son of the nation’s saviour. . . Of course I will end the corruption. And the rebellions. And the wars. I can set everything right. Better than under the republic, I can set things.”
“But emperor, Publius. You’d be enslaving the nation for the rest of time. Subject to the whims of all the tyrants that follow in your stead. And by the Goddess, they’ll want your throat. It will be civil war, as factions seek to seize power. And then constant assassination, a life led in terror, food and wine poisoned, beds with daggers. . .” Marcus couldn’t even think of the horrors that would follow.
“That’s why I’m truly here.” Publius admitted, fidgeting nervously. “You are as much father’s son as I. Think about it, and we truly are just the two halves of him. I the warrior, you the thinker. And they’ve seen you. People know you, they admire you. For a moment, all of Scamander was breathless and silent from your words. And you’re father’s son. My brother.”
“Don’t be ridiculous!” Marcus hissed, backing away with his arms upraised. “I’d make a horrible emperor. I can’t even run my own life, much less the nation’s! I can’t see deceit or danger. The first person who wanted me dead would have me dead.”
“It doesn’t matter if we’re qualified or not.” Publius pressed. “We’re the only ones who can do this. If not us, than whom? You can’t shirk duty with incompetence. Incompetence isn’t the question here. The most simple dullard is better than a tyrant. If you just sat there you’d be saving this nation. If we can secure some sort of legacy, Marcus. If chaos won’t be at the beginning and end of every reign. If I become emperor, with you already my designated heir, they won’t kill me. Because there’s no use, you’d just step up, and they no closer to the goal.”
“So then they kill me too!” Marcus insisted.
“Well for Illyria’s sake I’d hope you’d kill the killers before that!” Publius laughed in exasperation. “Is there no filial loyalty in you at all?”
“But this is. . .this is ridiculous. We’re going to risk our lives to enslave our own beloved land? This isn’t good for ourselves or our people. This is the stupidest thing possible.”
“No, I’ll tell you something even stupider. Illyria descends into civil and foreign wars, breaks apart into pieces, warlords fight over them, the whole nation crumbles, and the ogres eventually reach the very sea. You’ve been away, Marcus. But I’m right there, and I know this. We need an emperor. We need a strong hand, or else this will spin totally into chaos. That’s what the people realize, that’s what the leaders realize. The only question now is whom. Who will it be, Marcus? A fool willing to go to war and risk our entire nation for personal glory? A conspirator willing to assassinate his enemies to win the throne? A populist who makes vague speeches to sway the crowds? Who should determine the fate of our nation? It has to be us. It has to be me. But if it’s me, it has to be you too. I’d die in an instant alone.
“Once in the ancient past two brothers were the champions of the people. The older brother tried to get the Senate to relieve debts and distribute the land fairly, and the vested powers had him killed. Then five years later his younger brother came into his own, and tried the same thing, and he was also killed. It was such an obvious lesson that it’s a wonder that this isn’t fable but truth. Together they could have done it, Marcus. Apart they were just destroyed, and the People without the courage to stand up for either. They love us, as Marcellus’ sons. They’ll love you, with that perfect tongue. They’ll love me, as the hero and victor in war, as the inheritor of father’s prowess. Together the ‘powers’ dare not touch us, apart they’ll burn us each alive, and not a hand will stop them. We don’t have to be another lesson in history. We don’t have to be another brothers Gracchi. We can save them. We have to try.”
Marcus looked at his brother with a new admiration. “I was just thinking. . .” Marcus paused to figure out what he was thinking. “Here and now, this must be the most important decision in my life, more important than most people ever make. And after all that I’ve learned and taught. . .not a single bit of it helps me at all. Not one damned bit. A total blank. Not a single word telling me what to do.”
“I’m telling you what to do.” Publius pushed, not seeing that he’d already won.
“Publius, what you’re saying. . .all I know is that it feels right. After all the weight I put on thought. All that I know is that this feels right. Like the whisper of the Goddess telling me the right thing to do. Just waiting for me to stop buzzing and just listen. She must have been whispering all this time, and I never patient to listen.” Marcus marveled.
“You’ll do it then?” Publius looked up. Simple answers were all he sought.
“Yes.” Marcus nodded. “Through us father will be emperor after all.”
“We’ll make him proud.” Publius promised. A rush of relief followed him, like the ropes pulling at him had been suddenly cut. The danger had only increased, now that his intention was known. But that his brother affirmed him, agreed with him, made him feel like there was no pressure at all. It wasn’t the tension of the situation after all. Publius mused. All the strain was from my own self doubt. A clear mind about to die is a thousand times more at peace than one not sure of his own motives. Praise the Goddess, that she’s set my mind at ease. She just affirmed me here. Marcus said she did. That the whisper of the Goddess herself said yes. She’s with me. The Goddess is with me. It was the most peaceful thought he’d had all spring. She’s with me so I must succeed. She’s with me because I am for her. She knows my heart pure, and agrees. I’m doing the right thing. I’m going to succeed. All will be well. And all will be well. And all manner of things will be well.
“I was just wondering.” Marcus laughed, breaking the silence. “How I’m supposed to go back to writing essays for the next five months waiting like some lass for your return. I guess I’ll get to see how mother felt all this time. Her whole life a tiny buzzing in the corner of her mind, which is aimed—focused-- on the events entirely beyond her control.”
“I couldn’t bear to do that to my wife.” Publius agreed.
“Oh? Just your brother?” Marcus arched an eyebrow.
“Something like that.” Publius replied. Then they both smiled. It was the closest they’d ever been.
The marketplace carried the scents of spices and perfumes in a heady mixture almost designed to complement one another. Flowers hung strewn down vines draping the walls, desert white, bright enough to seemingly give off their own light. Girls danced in brass and gold, thin gauze of silk and linen in tantalizing red and blue and green. Their skin was brazen from the heat, their hair bleached from it. The sun was like a living being, another presence that filled the street. It wasn’t floating in the heavens, but standing straight in the center of the street, greeting every passerby, shouting louder than all the voices of the people combined. The sun was here. Publius could feel it on his skin. Burning hot. Amazingly hot. He’d thought it hot in Scamander. This was just insane. No wonder he’d not seen another northerner the entire walk. They had all shriveled up and died, he was sure of it. He looked at his hand to make sure it hadn’t withered. He had seen men burn, their skin crinkling away like so much black paper. It had to be just exactly like this. The sun was actually going to burn him alive.
“Excuse me.” A young girl seized the moment Publius had paused to look at his hand with. “A necklace for the lady? Would the Consul wish a bracelet? A pretty ring? Surely your lady at home is waiting for some prize.” She thrust the jewelry in his face, silver and gold and brass in various intricate or simple designs. Publius wondered how many lives were dying for these.
“I’m a marshal, not a Consul.” Publius explained, stepping to the side. She stepped with him, with such fluid grace that it was hard to tell if she had moved at all. Then he realized of course she knew he wasn’t a Consul. It had just been a complement. He was supposed to have been flattered that she thought so much of him, and with his new sense of ego be willing to buy something as expensive as a Consul could afford. Amazing. Such guile in such an innocent face.
“I’ve never seen eyes like yours.” The girl rushed. “And your hair! Gold like strands of frozen sunlight! Your lady must love you very much, to let you go so far from her.”
Publius blushed. Her words were meaningless, just contrived. Just because she was pretty and thought he was a Consul and thought he had a lady. . . . “My only lady is Illyria.” Publius tried to state gruffly. What was he saying? It was just a street hawker! He didn’t have to explain to her! Except that it was suddenly important that she understood. By the Goddess! He was trying to impress her!
“For your mother then!” The girl touched his arm. “You must be her fairest jewel.”
“Jania—“ Then Publius caught himself. He stepped aside again, but she held on to his arm. “Please, would you let me pass?”
“For Jania then!” She cried. “She must be very beautiful. A silver necklace to go with her eyes!”
Two men had caught the commotion and reached her. “Is this girl bothering you, sir?” Suddenly the girl stood frozen, her eyes widening like a doe’s. The grip on his arm became crushing, poised between flight and hiding.
“No.” Publius hastened. He thought of a thousand things to say, rejected them all, and then just left it at that. He didn’t have to explain himself to them.
They looked at his marshal’s crest and quickly saluted, fist to chest, before going about their business. It was good to see their discipline as occupying forces. The legions were not falling apart in the city, as so many other armies did upon conquest. Perhaps the Leucadians had counted upon that, which was why they had left it to be seized. Or perhaps for the more obvious reason that the attack had come as a total surprise due to its utter insanity, and Leucadia was stalling for time to gather forces and allies and supplies. Perhaps it was enough of an edge, that if they pressed hard enough, they could force a fight before it became utterly hopeless. Right now he should be leading his cavalry at a forced march to enclose the retreating King and cut him off from the north. Not wandering through the city bazaar. And yet he could not think of a better time or place to do what he had to do. All the stories talked about Datian cities brimming over with every sort of good ever made. He had to find it before they left the next day. And now people would know he had been here. He felt like he was walking on eggs and not allowed to break any.
The girl was staring at him with relief, though he wasn’t sure what she had been afraid of. Illyrians would never attack a city that had surrendered peacefully. All the people here had the same rights as any of the provinces, as a part of the Republic. That’s what surrender meant. If the occupation forces stayed. The people here were under the protection of law and of honor and of the Goddess herself. Perhaps pretty girls holding riches had more reason to be afraid. Though she certainly hadn’t been afraid of pestering him. Was he really that gentle? What kind of marshal was he when doe-eyed girls could leave him blushing and stammering?
Publius returned to the problem at hand—getting this girl to release his arm from the vice of her grip. “They’re gone now. See? No one’s going to hurt you.” She just looked at him. “Here, now, what’s your name?” He followed.
“Mirian.” She said, relaxing her grip.
“You’re right, Mirian. Jania would love a silver necklace for her blue eyes.” He fished out his purse. He always had money, it just never occurred to him to use it. But if buying a necklace meant calming her down and letting him go on with his business, then it was money well spent.
She looked at him with this sense of overwhelming gratitude. It made him blush again. He wasn’t doing anything admirable. Why was she looking at him like that? He took the first necklace he could find and gave her more coin than it could possibly be worth. “I can’t.” She protested, holding the money back.
“Take it, take it.” He murmured, closing her hand over it with his. It had just been reflexive. He hadn’t meant to hold her hand. How could her hand be this soft?
“At least let me help you in return!” She protested again, her hand not in the least shying from him. More like. . .tingling with quiet power. “When I first saw you, you looked so lost. I can help find what you want.”
He shook his head. “No you can’t. Please, just, I have to be on my way.” But he didn’t let go either. It was very odd. He couldn’t seem to tell his hand to let go. She looked up at him with wide eyes, just looked, waiting for him to let go of her hand. But all he wanted to do was stare. It was ridiculous. He hadn’t come for this. He had to--his mind paused, suddenly changing tracks--come to think of it, so long as people thought he came for this, no one would look at him twice for being here. She could be his cloak. The answer to all the watching eyes. For a girl. Just like everyone, here to pay a girl for the lonely trail. Nothing like poison for his commander. “Alright.” Publius gave in. He let go of her hand, reluctantly, but only with the knowledge that they were still going to be together.
“Mirian, I will trust you with this.” He casually started walking to an alley. Just a soldier hiring a service. Nothing to hide. “I need a poison. Something that goes with wine. It has to kill, just one dose. Just the tiniest bit has to be enough. A lethal poison. It doesn’t matter if people know. He just needs to die.”
The girl’s eyes widened. “But why would you want something like that?” At least she didn’t think him a gentle lamb anymore. He hoped.
“Is it not enough that I just want it?”
“No, of course. I mean, yes. I mean, of course it doesn’t matter.” She bit her cheek and ducked her face to hide her blush. The skin was so dusky that only the faintest hue could be seen.
“All you have to do is point the way. You don’t have to show me if you don’t want to.” For some reason he hoped she would show him. Oh yes. To protect from watching eyes. Besides, he might get lost.
“No, I can find one. The apothecaries. . .there are some apothecaries who deal with such things. The root of a plant healing, the stem poison, and the like.” She was blushing deeper for some reason. Publius didn’t understand why. “Here, just wait here.” She left the alley with her jewelry with a quick flustered look. Of course she couldn’t just wander off carrying all that stuff. He was being such an idiot. If he wanted cover, why not be with a true courtesan? Because he hadn’t thought of that. Because it hadn’t occurred to him until now and now it was too late anyway and he didn’t want to leave her.
She hurried back into his view, relieved to see he hadn’t left. “I told them we were going to get your payment for the necklace. They won’t mind when I return with this much.”
Publius looked at her.
“Besides,” she said, flustered. “It’s sort of true.”
Publius wasn’t sure how it was true at all. But would he have thought of something like that so quickly as that? How old was she?
“It’s this way.” She touched his hand with hers. This time there was almost a surge passing between them. Gone as soon as come, with her walking out of the alley confidently. He wondered if he should walk behind her. Surely if she were a courtesan, he would walk beside her. And she could guide him with slight pulls as they held hands. Yes, it looked better that way. Of course, not if he were a customer going to get his money pouch. Then he should be walking in front. How many lies were they weaving around them? How easily did they betray themselves just by their order of walking? He quickly caught up to her and took her hand. She looked up at him with a sort of surprise, but he wasn’t looking at her, so she relaxed. Obviously this was for a reason. Not just him holding her hand.
Once they had left the street, he explained. “It’s easier if they see us together. It explains why I’m here. People notice me otherwise.”
She smiled in sympathy. “I wonder how people would ever not notice you. Are you a hyperborean?”
“I guess not.” She blushed. It was so cute.
“What’s a hyperborean?” He couldn’t just let it go now.
“If you just keep traveling north, there’s a land so cold that only the gryphons and the boreans can survive. The air is full of feathers, so you can’t see more than a few yards. And the boreans, they have blue eyes, and they fight with the gryphons for the cattle that they herd. The children of the sun. . .” She gave up with an apologetic smile. “I’m sorry. Your eyes just reminded me of that story.”
“It’s sort of true.” Publius quickly defended her. “My mother was an Ogre, of the tribes of Mania. Sometimes it snows so hard that the sky looks full of feathers, and you can’t see your own hand.”
“But you’re so. . .” She caught short, a thrill running through her hand. “I just. . .I didn’t think Ogres would look like you.”
“Not all of them do.” Publius smiled wryly. She was about to say beautiful. He swore she was going to say it. What would he have said then? No one had ever said that to him, for all the people who stared. Those who stared were only thinking of ugliness, though, so nothing they ever saw could be beautiful. She was the first person who was beautiful enough to find beauty in him. Ridiculous. It couldn’t happen now. Not when he’d already gambled away his life. It couldn’t happen now. Illyria couldn’t do this to him now. This was Sheole, come to steal his conviction away. Illyria wanted him to go through with this. This was just Sheole standing in the way. But how could she ever be a dog of Sheole? Nothing evil had a face so pure. It was impossible.
“I thought Ogres hated Illyria though.” She puzzled. “I thought all you did was fight.”
“Father is special.” Publius smiled proudly. How many sons could claim Marcellus for their father? “When he was young, he was such a hero. And mother loved him, just like that. Just seeing him, even though she knew he was the enemy. They loved each other, just like that. I always wished it were that easy. That I could be a hero like father and find a wife like mother, just like that, just by appearing.”
“You’re a marshal! How can you be less of a hero than your father?” She seemed to want to champion his cause.
“Because my father is the greatest man in all of Illyria.” Publius couldn’t help but smile. “And all my greatness only makes him the greater.”
“Now you’re teasing me.” She complained. “You haven’t even told me your name.”
“It’s Publius. Publius Sunhand. My father is Marcellus Sunhand.”
She pulled her hand out from his, taking a step back. “You.” She stammered. “I can’t believe I. . .I’m so sorry. . .please, I didn’t know. . .just. . .you have to believe me.”
Publius gently reclaimed her hand, their fingers interlocking. “He got the name Sunhand from his father. His father fought the ogres too. One night the ogres were attacking from the marshes, and he was standing sentry. But they had killed the other sentries and were about to kill him. So he took a torch and threw it into the grain bin, and the explosion woke the whole camp. He only had time for that one moment before the ogres had shot him down. Just that one split second of thought to save the entire Legion, and he did the one and only exactly right thing to do it. So the Senate gave his family the honor of Sunhand, for that night. And that honor has only grown.” Publius’ eyes were shining with pride.
“Why are you telling me this? You. . .you’re the. . .they say you killed forty thousand men in an hour. They say you defeated thirty thousand with just five hundred men. That they surrendered to you! You’re a devil! You’re not human. You’re the monster that devours nations! No wonder you’re buying poison! Are you here to kill us all too? Why won’t you just stop killing? What have we ever done to you?”
“It’s not like that! Father has only defended us! He’s saved our Republic twice when rightfully we were doomed! He’s the greatest man I’ve ever known!” Publius held her hand fiercely, not willing to let her go. Not like this. It couldn’t end like this.
“All we ever wanted was to live in peace!” She was furious, now. “Does Illyria suddenly hate Datia, who gave us the very air we breathe? Whose rivers feed all the life Illyria grew? How can you betray us so?”
“It’s not me!” He protested. “I don’t want to hurt anyone!”
“Oh, that’s right. Just to kill them with poisoned wine!” She retorted. Then they froze. In the middle of the city, with a hundred people within easy hearing, she had just shouted. They both stared at the people around them, who all seemed to be running to some other place than there.
“Are you trying to get me killed?” He hissed, now almost whispering, though the crowd had almost vanished.
“Why shouldn’t I? Isn’t that what you’re trying to do to me?” She jerked at her hand angrily.
“No it’s not what I’m trying.” He held on to her just as angrily. “I’m trying to kill the damned idiot who got us into this war. I’m trying to have him killed and get back to Illyria as soon as possible. I’m trying to save my homeland from itself and Datia all at once. I’m trying to save everyone, if you didn’t just ruin the last hope of fifty million people wishing for peace!”
She stared at him, her protests weakening, until she stood still again. “Who are you?” She asked.
Publius laughed. “Ask me tomorrow, and I will be dead or Emperor of all Illyria. Ask me today, and I will tell you an exhausted, scared, treacherous fool. Ask me tonight. . .” And he looked at her, blue eyes meeting cinnamon brown.
“Tonight?” She asked.
“Someone who loves you.” Then he swallowed. For some reason his throat was too tight to breathe. And his body wouldn’t stop trembling. And he knew he was the greatest idiot to ever grace the world. She looked at him astonished. As if that were the last thing she possibly expected to hear. He just stared, not knowing what else to do. They were still holding hands though. She hadn’t stopped holding him, she hadn’t left him yet.
“How could you say that?” She managed. “How could you tell me that? Tomorrow you’ll leave me and never see or think of me again. And you tell me that? Is this what you tell every girl you meet in the street?”
“This is the first time I’ve ever said that.” He said. In a dead way. She hated him. He had just confessed and now she hated him. It was the stupidest thing he could have possibly done, and he did it. Why on earth did he say that? Did he just want to say that before he died? Was he just reaching out now because he was too scared to do what he knew was right? How could he have said it? It was the most ridiculous thing he’d ever said. He’d only known her for an hour. By Illyria, was he just saying this to match his dream? To find a girl like father? Did he just confess his love just to be like father?
She looked at him. “The stupidest thing is I believe you.” She said, angry with her own trust.
He let go of her hand quietly. “Forget it. I don’t know why I said that. I’m sorry. I can find the apothecary from here.”
She looked up. “Did you mean it?”
He took a long breath to summon the courage. “By Illyria, yes.”
“You love me?” She almost laughed at the concept.
“Yes.” Like admitting his guilt to the executioner.
“You love me.” She was almost asking again. As if to make sure.
“Yes.” He refused to apologize again.
She took back his hand. “Then let’s get our poison.”
The night kept passing, but there was a bubble of frozen time within it, where two lovers lay under the stars. Mirian traced circles over his hand idly, but the tiniest touch was enough to send ripples of warmth through him. How could a girl so small have such power? He never wanted to leave this moment. The night should just go on and on. His own hand found its way stroking through her hair. It was all so quiet and comfortable, that it was like they didn’t even have to think about it. It just was. This was the right way to be. Together was the natural state of their existence.
“Why were you scared?” He asked, just in a wondering sense. After all this time together he still had no idea who she was. It seemed like the right time to find out.
“Oh.” Her hand stopped for a moment. “You see. . .they. . .my owners. . .they said you were an easy mark. If I didn’t sell something to you they were going to beat me for being lazy. I hadn’t sold anything all day. It was just really hot, I guess. I guess they just weren’t happy today.”
“Your owners?” Publius asked. He couldn’t believe anyone would ever want to hurt something so beautiful. He couldn’t believe he had almost left her behind to those jackals. She might be dead now because he hadn’t bought a necklace.
“I’m an orphan. We used to live in Lycia. I was going to be a dancer. Everyone in the village encouraged me. I was going to make the whole village proud when I performed in the city. They knew that they’d created something special in me. So I was going to make them proud.”
Publius just stroked through her hair.
“But then the Centaurs came. Lycia just swept away like flotsam in the greatest of all floods. They killed my parents. They hid me. But they killed the entire village. They didn’t even steal anything. They just killed us. I guess they wanted more grazing lands for their sheep.” She still explained quietly. How could someone so small be so strong? She was so bright. Such a bright star for such a dark world.
“You should know.” She turned her face to him, a look of concern on her face. For the first time worried. “Datia isn’t that strong. After we lost our army to the plague in Necia. . .then the Centaurs came, stronger than ever before. Not like the other barbarians. They were so strong, and fast. The most deadly archers in the world. They’ve conquered all of Lycia, and only stopped so that they could chew on it before they come again. The King’s armies have all been on the eastern border, fighting them off. With this invasion. . .there just wasn’t anybody to fight you. We’re fighting so hard to keep Datia alive. If the Centaurs come, they’ll just burn and kill Leucadia too. They’ll raze the greatest cities of the world. The most ancient cities of the world. The glory of a Goddess. Please, we are a good people! You can’t war with us. Not when all we’re doing is fighting to protect you!”
“Protect us?” He blinked.
“The Centaurs aren’t like Jinni. They don’t just raid and pillage. They’re conquerors. Their empires have no limits, because they ride like the wind. They can actually conquer the whole world. They can stretch their arms however far they wish. And they’re so bloody. All they know is blood. If we don’t stop them, if Datia falls, next it will be Caria fighting at their own doors.”
“Are you telling me Datia has no army to challenge us with?” How could he win this war if there was no one to fight? How could he come home emperor?
“Of course we have an army!” She looked indignant. “But your backstab. . .yes that’s exactly what it is. . .we just won’t have the resources to fight both wars. It will mean losing against the Centaurs, to crush you. Or losing our own homes, if we stay against the Centaurs.”
“So they’ll split the army and lose both.” Publius mused, knowing how the world worked.
“Datia is going to die.” She said quietly, wrapping her arms around him. “And you’re going to kill her. And all I can think is I love you.”
Publius held her to him with infinite care. She wasn’t even crying. Just holding him. She was so amazing. “After they destroyed my village, I left for the city. But I had no ties, and I was hungry. I’d been running from the Centaurs the entire time. So these people took me in, because I was pretty. They fed me, and let me sleep. And when I woke up I was a slave.” She murmured against him. “It could have been much worse. They just wanted to use my face to attract customers. It could have been worse. Others would not have stopped at my face. I’m lucky, truly. I survived, when everyone else died. And then I found a nice job, with nice owners. And then I found you. It isn’t so bad, not bad at all.”
“How did you live, alone for all that time? I couldn’t imagine being so alone.” He asked.
“Can’t you? When I first saw you, you looked so lonely. So lost.”
“I have a family. A name. People respect me.” They looked into each other’s eyes. “Alright so I was lonely. I just didn’t know until now.” He smiled. “And now I’m not.”
“But tomorrow we will be. Tomorrow we’ll just be lonelier. Because now we know what it means to be together.”
“I can’t. . .I can’t forsake my duty. Please don’t ask me to.”
“I know you can’t. You have to save us all. Not just Illyria. You have to save Datia too. I can’t steal that from you. Not and love you.”
“I thought Datia would crush us. But now, I think we can win this war. One short battle and we can decide it, and go home triumphant with our spoils.”
“But Datia will die!” She protested.
“No it won’t, love.” Publius pledged. “This night, these people, this city. This is Datia. These perfumes and spices and silks, and ornaments and dancers and artwork and buildings so tall. Datia can’t die just because different soldiers guard its walls. It won’t even lose its name. And then Illyria will defend it from the Centaurs with all its heart. Then we will fight them together. Like the Goddesses would have willed us from the beginning.”
“They won’t protect us. They’ll abandon us for their own homes.”
“No they won’t. Because I will be emperor. And this is my home.” Then he kissed her, and it was so sweet. Not that he could compare. But sweet enough for him. Sweet enough to never need another drink from any other well for the rest of time. As sweet as that.
She smiled. “I was just thinking. That I just saved the world, seducing you.”
“I was hoping you could seduce me more.” He smiled.
She pulled his head in for another kiss. “Me too.”
Publius could feel the presence of the vial in his saddlebag as he mounted up. It seemed that everyone must know that it was there, though obviously they didn’t. Somehow Mirian had shouted out his intention in the midst of a hundred people and not one of them had reported him. Illyria’s blessing, or dumb luck. But as he made his way through the pre-dawn camp, tired in a new way that was so joyous he could never have slept, he wondered if the poison was even a good idea any longer.
After all, this war wasn’t a lost cause after all. He had always thought that only Illyria was rife with problems, beset by corruption and enemies, and that all other nations had the good sense to keep their houses in order. That Datia was in as dire straits as Illyria made Publius wonder if any nation, or any people, or any person at all had his house in order. Or maybe everyone was about to collapse, inward and outward, and they just never let it show, to keep the vultures away. Even the vultures had to pretend they were strong, to not be eaten by the other vultures. The whole world circling vultures and frightened sheep, and all of them pretending to be strong.
But if this war could be won, Publius reminded himself, then that meant he could win it. In which case there wouldn’t be some intricate arrangement where Publius took control and retreated whilst retaining his good name for the masses. This was much more direct. All he had to do now was win the war, and make sure Crassus didn’t survive it. The poison might still be necessary. But better if he were killed in battle. Better if it could not be traced to anything but fate. He couldn’t fight a real war, though. Not if the Centaurs were truly this fierce. He needed to defeat Datia with the assurance of a surgeon’s cut. To defeat it and as soon as possible recruit it to the greater war that loomed ahead. With such a threat as a barbarian horde, at least all the provinces out of fear alone would come together under the Emperor’s banner. The Sunhand. The banner of the entire Empire. The thought of it sent a thrill of anticipation.
“Why are you smiling?” Falco asked, reining his horse in beside his marshal.
Publius looked at his friend carefully, trying to read the other’s look. “It’s a good day to be alive. Every day is a good day to be smiling.”
“Ha!” He laughed. “Tell that to your father! I don’t know how the Legions will manage without his gloomy stormcloud face leading us into the fray.”
“That reminds me. I was in the city yesterday, and I came upon some vital information regarding Datia’s state of readiness.”
“Oh I’m sure he’s already heard about it from a thousand others. Crassus is either blessed, lucky, or a sheer genius. Striking out of the blue the one time this would work with so few men as he has.”
“You know too?” Publius was surprised. But then if he learned it from a common slave, then of course others would have learned it from a thousand others. It made him feel slightly less important than before, to not have been central to the functioning of the universe.
“I should think you didn’t have time to be gathering information last night.” Falco smiled, revealing perfect teeth.
Publius glared at him. “Can I take two steps without someone telling you about it?”
“No one had to tell me.” Falco laughed. “There’s only one way a man smiles like that, sitting on a horse, in the desert cold, blind to the world.”
“I love her.” Publius stated proudly. “And she loves me.”
Falco shot him a dirty look. “Are you planning on dying soon?”
“No!” Publius jumped. “Why?”
“Because I remember a Publius a few days ago saying he’d sooner die than marry a widow and father an orphan.”
Publius relaxed a bit. “I can’t explain it. When I said it, that’s exactly how I felt. It was totally true. But now that I’ve met her. . .it’s like. . .nothing I ever said or believed applies. The only thing that matters is her. Like. . .that person just didn’t know. . .how could I have known. . .that someone like her was in this world?”
“And yet here you are.” Falco noted. “Off to kill her brothers and fathers who are off to kill you.”
“She’s an orphan. The sole survivor of her entire village.” Publius quickly explained. He had to admit that he just loved talking about her. It made him feel like she was really there.
“Well isn’t that a nice way to avoid conflicting loyalties.” Falco jibed. “I guess I don’t have to watch my back, then?”
“Falco!” Publius reprimanded. “There is love and there is honor. I know which I serve.”
“Good then.” Falco nodded. “Just don’t lose your head in the charge. She’s in another world now, not this one. For now, she doesn’t exist. Just a dream. When you return, then the wars are just a dream, and she’s your reality. But you can’t mix the two. You just can’t, not and live.”
“My thanks.” Publius nodded to his counsel. Did he plan on dying soon? A wash of fear that his love wasn’t true ran through him. Maybe all of this was just wishing to live before he died. Maybe she’d only pretended to love him because she was a slave and he a marshal and she saw her chance to live in luxury. Maybe this whole thing was a farce, two people just using the other.
Impossible. He banished the thought. Nothing but love could have created such a night as ours. When she kissed me, I knew her love. When she held me, I knew her love. When she touched me, I knew her love. I knew it as I knew my own heart and my own breath. I knew it as I knew myself alive. She loves me. And I love her. That is something we will always know. Deeper than our own souls.
“You’re smiling again.” Falco observed amusedly.
“I can’t help it!” Publius confessed. “I don’t even notice when I am!”
“It’s alright.” Falco forgave. “I’ve never seen you so happy. I’m glad I had the chance.” Then he left to round up his century, as Publius left to join the command tent of the Consul. Crassus was in the center, miles away from here. Even if Publius did use the poison, it would take some doing to arrange even a chance at it. The plan seemed worse and worse as the minutes passed.
Publius dismounted, careful not to strain his shoulder. Thoughts of her tender care flashed through his mind before he reached the Command tent. He was afraid he might be glowing for all the world to see. If every injury meant being cooed over when he came back. . .
“Sunhand!” Muscianus barked. “About time you got here. And what’s that smile for?”
Publius tried—hard—not to blush. “Sir, the Datians are much weaker than we thought. If we overtake them soon, before they can gain reinforcements from the eastern front, we can claim the entire field in a single battle!”
“Well it’s good to see you so enthusiastic about our chances.” Muscianus said dryly. The rest of the marshals laughed. He was a good Consul. He’d proven his worth ten times over at Gypsum pass. It was good to see good men doing good things. It gave him hope. That there were enough people like him out there to save all the rest. Unless Muscianus was also here to reach the throne. Publius reminded himself that in this none could be trusted. Even the best men would be his enemy more often than not, for hatred of tyranny alone.
“Crassus doesn’t want the cavalry separating from the infantry. It makes sense, in a way.” Muscianus admitted, returning to the argument with his other marshals. “Without the cavalry the infantry are deaf and blind and sitting ducks to enemy cavalry. We’re not in some gorge or valley anymore. This is the open plain. Leucadia is the land of chariots. Infantry would be devoured whole without us guarding their flanks.”
“Yes but there aren’t any enemy cavalry.” Brutus insisted. “Sunhand is right. If we act now we can overtake them. If we wait for the infantry they’ll have us exactly where they want us.”
“It’s too risky.” Muscianus disagreed. “The infantry left helpless as babes, and the cavalry fighting the whole of the war. If we should lose the battle it would mean losing the whole war.”
“Wars aren’t won by not losing them.” Publius commented.
“Your father said that.” Muscianus bit his lip. “And I disagreed with him then, too. However, this time we do it my way, because this time I’m the Consul. Understood?”
“Understood.” The marshals said in chorus.
“Fan out on the flanks, scouts and rear guard for partisan resistance. Take what you need, nothing more. Treat the people well. Like our own citizens, because soon they will be. Like brothers. I want no horror stories, do you understand? No talk of Illyrian demons run amok. We’ll proceed at a steady pace until the King turns about and faces us. As simple as that.”
“Yes sir!” The marshals saluted, fist to chest. They broke up to their detachments, some mingling to talk on their own, others hoping to get breakfast before the march began. Publius left as well, walking quickly. He should have gotten a sword of Datian steel. He was in the middle of a giant city, and it hadn’t occurred to him to get a better sword. Unforgivable. A sword of star metal. And he’d entirely forgotten it.
“Publius!” Brutus hailed, catching up to him with a quick jog. “A word?”
“Of course.” Publius stopped, a friendly smile. He was ready to smile all day.
“There’s something about this plan, that seems odd.” Brutus remarked. “Reining in the cavalry when the whole point of cavalry is our mobility, our speed, our chance to take advantage of this very situation.”
“Of course it’s stupid. But so is attacking Datia at all.” Publius agreed.
“Yes, well, if we’re going to fight, at least we could do it right. These people aren’t idiots. We all know that we should be riding like the blazes while our advantage remains.”
“What are you saying?” Publius asked slowly.
“The only reason why we’re keeping in toe with the Legions is because Crassus wants the glory for himself. He wants to win this war, he doesn’t want this war won.”
“Consuls can be like that.” Publius admitted.
“The only reason why you start a war just to win it is to gain the fame and glory and spoils of that victory. The only reason you seek fame and glory is to become emperor.”
“Crassus means to overthrow the republic?” Publius asked, eyes wide.
“You must see it. The only question is are you going to stop it?” Brutus gave him a piercing look.
“But how?” Publius asked. “He’s the Consul. It is our duty to obey.”
“There are the laws of men and the laws of Gods. Which do you follow, Publius?”
“Illyria, first and always.” Publius affirmed.
“When the time comes, then. You will be there.”
Publius gave an odd smile. “I will be there when the time comes. Of that I’m sure.”
“I knew I could trust you.” They clasped wrists, and Brutus went his way. Publius watched the man go with a sort of irony. Someday a great man would be his enemy. Did that make him a bad man? Or Brutus just a fool? The question could only be decided by history. Publius let his doubts flee as he returned to his thousand. When the time came, he would be emperor, and he would know of Brutus and all the others before they even rose a hand.
Making his way back to his horse, he found the centuries assembled and the camp struck in good order, the personal Sunhand banner close at hand. Illyria would find a way. By poison, dagger, battle or war. Crassus would not survive this campaign. Illyria knew her champion.
“What will it be, sir?” The attendant asked. The trumpeter stood ready.
“We ride!” Publius announced. “And be sure to kiss every daisy on the way!” The men broke into laughter as the trumpet sounded the call. It was going to be a nice day, a nice ride, in a nice land, and a nice sleep, without worry or care. It was every soldier’s dream. Publius just wished she were here. A soft smile crept across his face, but he was too busy remembering to care.
They rode like that for weeks. Until, as Muscianus had predicted, the King finally turned to offer battle. The Illyrians were happy to give it.
“Jania! Jania!” Jacob shouted in glee. “Come see this!” Jacob didn’t wait for a response, running to the living room to fetch her bodily. Ever since her second pregnancy, and her resulting illness, he had not left her side. And because of it, he’d gotten to witness his son growing up before his eyes. He would have traded all his days on the sea for that. It was the greatest bargain he’d ever struck.
He burst into the chamber like a breath of fresh air in a stuffy dark cave. It wasn’t that it was stuffy or dark, not in the least. The room was plush and full to the brim with sunlight, birds singing merrily outside. The people, however, were too glum and serious to take note of it, turning their dark and disapproving looks to anyone who dared be happy. It was like this anywhere, merriment and cheer stomped out throughout the city. Being happy was a sort of shameful loss of dignity. Something only children could be forgiven, and then only grudgingly. Anyone who could manage to be happy obviously just didn’t realize the peril of the State or the gravity of the situation, to be quickly and acidly informed.
“Jacob.” Jania smiled brilliantly. Her face was competing with her hair for paleness, her body as frail as a bird’s. But she still had that brilliant smile and those perfect blue eyes. She was always beautiful. “These are the doctors I sent for. They’ve been learning ever-so-much.”
Jacob gave a curt nod to them, hardly even seeing the scowls they had for being disrupted. One stood up and shook out his coat. “For a loving husband, it hardly does well for you to be so loud and unruly in such times as these. Noise and tumult will only aggravate the situation.”
“Oh? Then you have found a cure? Or at least the nature of her affliction?” Jacob looked at him for the first time respectfully.
“Well.” The doctor puffed out his mustache. “There is an explanation that fits the situation. But I’m not sure if you should know it.”
“What did we hire you for if you’re not going to tell us the problem?” Jacob tried to hide his frustration. After all, these people were working to save her life. They were on the same side. It was stupid to be angry with them.
“Well. . .” The doctor trailed off, looking for support. The other two stood up to either side. “Her sickness has always come on with pregnancy, it seems.”
“Yes we knew that.” Jacob prompted. Surely they hadn’t been paid to tell them that.
“And we all know that with pregnancy is the mixing of your two halves. Apparently, the illness comes from intemperate humors clashing between her body and the child born of you. She coming from such a far northern land, and you from so far south, the humors are just too different for her body to accept them. Your southern nature is like poison to her far northern body, and it’s this poison that is eating away at her from the inside.”
Jacob stood very still. He dared not move, he dared not blink, for fear of killing them. “Get out.”
“What was that?” The doctors gave him an odd look, a condescending look.
“Get out. Right now.”
“But we’ve not found a way to help her yet!” They protested. “If you love her—“
“Right now.” Jacob’s whole body was trembling with rage, but his voice somehow stayed absolutely rigid. The doctors seemed to actually see him for the first time, a livid and angry beast about to set upon them. They dropped their air of pretense and quickly shuffled around him, almost hugging the walls so as to not come close. The moment they were gone, Jacob remembered to breathe. His whole body was wrung out, like he had just run five miles. Standing still had been the hardest thing he had ever done.
“Darling.” Jania smiled. “Did you have to be so very scary? You should have seen the look on their faces.” She laughed. Jacob smiled back, all the anger fading away almost instantly. She was just so perfect.
“I’ve never heard of such a stupid, vile, hateful thing to say.” Jacob managed. “I can’t believe they thought we would pay them to tell me I was. . .was. . .poison.” He spat the word.
“I suppose it wouldn’t do well to ask them back.” Jania said. Jacob glared at her only to see her teasing eyes. Then he laughed along with her. “No. I think not.”
“But what were you shouting about?” Jania asked. “You didn’t come here just to frighten my poor little physicians?”
“It’s Joshua.” Jacob’s eyes sparkled.
“What is it?” Jania’s voice instantly became concerned. She had thought he was improving, that she didn’t have to watch over him every second. How could she have left him alone?
“He’s crawling.” Jacob left out in a rush. “He’s wandering all over the room!”
“Crawling?” Jania gasped in delight. “My Joshua?”
“He’s not tired a bit!” Jacob laughed. “He’s already such an explorer! He’s going to grow up to be a great sailor! I can already see it!”
Jania smiled at him with amusement. He was just too happy to be more than ten. “Then pick me up, silly. Or am I too heavy for you now?”
Jacob took her hand and pulled her onto her feet. Seven months pregnant, and it barely showed, she was so very thin. But it was enough to keep her bedridden without his help. It was as though she had given all her strength to Joshua and had none left for herself. As though she had traded her life for his. Jacob angrily banished the thought. She would not die. She would not die.
They carefully went back to the bedroom Joshua had made his domain, the nurses looking on with an equally joyous grin. So many people had worked so hard for this day. There was a quiet awe in the room for all those there. They had actually conquered death. Love had actually triumphed. Seeing this baby crawl was one of the closest moments the family ever had with Illyria. Because she had actually answered their prayers.
Joshua wandered across the heavily carpeted floor, making small noises of delight in his ability. He would sometimes go backwards or sideways, just to see if he could, and gurgled happily when he did. He would take objects in his hand and quickly stick them in his mouth, though they were all far too large for it. It was like the whole world had opened up before him. As though he could be anywhere or do anything, now that he could crawl. It was like being born all over again.
Jania didn’t try to wipe away her tears. She liked the feel of them running down her cheek, filling her eyes, burning in her throat. “My little Joshua. Look, Jacob! My little Joshua.”
“I see him.” Jacob wore that stupid grin of sheer bliss.
“I did something right.” She whispered through her tears. “I did it right, didn’t I?”
“You did it right.” Jacob affirmed, truly amazed. He had thought the baby dead from the day it was born. “You did everything right.”
Muscianus slapped down his spyglass with a curse. “There can’t be that many! This damn thing is broken! There aren’t that many Datians in Datia!”
The marshals sat atop their horses, ill at ease, watching the whole sky fill up with dust from the enemy’s approach. The horses were restless, feeling the atmosphere, nipping at each other and jostling their riders. Publius put his own spyglass down quietly, a sense of perfect calm that only follows utter despair. “There must be ten times as many men. By Illyria, they must have allied with the Centaurs to field such an army. We must be facing them both.”
“Impossible.” Muscianus whispered, mouthing a prayer to the Goddess. “It must be some trick.”
“Eyes don’t lie.” Brutus gave the common phrase.
“Maybe they do!” Publius said with sudden excitement. “Maybe that’s no army at all!”
The other marshals gave him a queer look. Of course, he had been gushing over with happiness the whole march, but they had thought that would end with the onset of reality.
“Look, we all know this is impossible! You can’t summon three hundred thousand men out of thin air, I don’t care if you’re the King of Kings!”
“But there they are.” Muscianus pointed at the cloud of dust seeking to obscure the sun.
“Yes but who?” Publius insisted. “I bet you could summon three hundred thousand craftsmen, farmers, innkeepers, bakers, and cobblers. It’s just a giant bluff! The whole army is a mirage!”
“Clever bastards.” Muscianus admitted. “They didn’t divide their army after all. It’s the same army they faced us with from the beginning. They just spent weeks gathering a giant ruse. Almost makes me want to lose just out of respect for them.” The marshals laughed at that, back in control again. Suddenly it was their decision again whether to win or lose, the dust cloud just a good joke.
“Alright Publius, if this is true, you wouldn’t mind proving it?” Muscianus asked. “I’m not about to commit ten thousand horse on a conjecture, and Crassus isn’t about to commit the whole of us on it either.”
“Sir.” Publius saluted, fist to chest, realizing the opportunity Muscianus had given him. “Give me my thousand, and I will win the entire field. A thousand men can defeat a million slaves.”
“And let you hog all the glory?” Muscianus gave him a toothy smile. “Not if I want to stay Consul.” The others laughed. “Alright Publius, how about this? If I see the Sunhand flying thirty minutes from now, the Fifth Eagle follows.”
“Illyria be with me, then, that I win the field in ten!” Publius announced, saluting again. His whole body was animated with excitement. He had to win this battle. All on his own. He had to make this charge and make it work and break the whole army. If he won this fight, one thousand horse against three hundred thousand. . .his name would resound with glory forever. After this fight he could go home to Illyria in Triumph. He could go home as Emperor. Illyria was doing it again. Having everything go his way. She was almost giving him the crown.
He galloped his horse to his detachment, the men murmuring uneasily at the dust cloud. It felt like the whole earth was shaking from their march. Just his imagination. There couldn’t be that many men. Publius hoped not. No time to be worried. He was a marshal. Marshals were never worried.
“Men! I call you men today!” His horse turned about and he expertly turned with it. “Because you are free men! Free! It’s a word these Datians have never heard! You’re all here of your own will, citizens of a Republic! The people rule, the Law rules, sitting in the Square for all the people to see! And not the greatest man in all the Republic can change them! So is it any wonder, that there are so few of us, and so many of them? For how many free men are brave enough to be here today? It is Datia’s pride, to be a nation of slaves, all of them subject to the Tyrant’s whim. Is it any wonder that they come before us with a swarm of slaves? None of them wish to be here, none of them here of their own will, none of them fighting for anything but their own survival. A people of slaves, a land of slaves, and the only reason they’re here is so that they can go back home! And they will go home! The moment the merest chance of danger approaches, they’ll run! What pride does a slave own? What use does he have for staying? No! He will run! They will all run! All we need do is charge!” He took a deep breath.
“Today it is ours to show that free men are the only Men!” Publius shouted with all the force of his lungs. “Will you ride with me?”
The men shouted at the top of their lungs their willingness. They screamed their throats hoarse with the pride they held for themselves, the honor Publius had given them. They would ride.
Publius drew his sword of stubborn Lucian steel, holding it aloft to glint with the noonday sun. He sat poised perfectly atop his pure white horse, blond hair framing a perfect face, a tongue of golden fire in his hand. He sat atop his horse as some visiting God. And then the trumpet sounded the charge, and the thousand followed galloping on their marshal’s heels.
Publius didn’t look back, knowing that they were following without needing to look. It was insane, utterly insane, to lead the charge. He would be the very first man to reach an army that outnumbered them three hundred to one. He was insane, it was insane, there was no way he could actually survive this charge. Except he could feel the Goddess around him with every jolting step of his horse. He could almost feel her breath on his neck, urging him on. He charged, knowing he would die, and yet knowing beyond knowing that he was invincible, that at this moment nothing upon the earth could touch him, that though he charged the whole army alone the only sure thing was that he’d live. He charged, not in the least caring that the Sunhand followed so close behind that it would almost instantly fall, not in the least caring that he didn’t even know where the true enemy army stood. He just rode for the center, hoping the King had chosen the safest spot for his most elite guard. Hoping the King had not thought to give battle at all, had not thought that anyone would be charging him today. He trusted in his insanity to be his greatest protection, for no one could plan against the insane.
Then he saw the waving green banners and the ceremonial armor. Then he saw the golden chariot holding the King. All he had to do was reach the King. Just like a chess game. Just take the King and the whole battle was won. All he need do was carve his way to the King. The thoughts came so quickly as he directed his mount. He wasn’t even looking at the men in his way. His gaze was fixed stubbornly on the King alone, willing his horse to ride through everything inbetween. He could almost see the look of terror on the King’s face before he slammed into the first rank guarding him. He was moving too fast for anyone to actually stop him. The line just bulged to let him through, until he had sunk so deep that there were only green banners to his every side. For a second, two, ten Publius cut and slashed forward, still moving forward through the entire army alone. The Datians were too startled to even stop him at first. He was just too insane to be charging alone through an entire army. Only when they saw where he was going did they raise up their first cry of alarm. It wasn’t a madman, but an assassin. Then the spears and swords began to rain upon him with doubled and redoubled fury. Publius didn’t even try to move now, just holding his shield and sword to protect himself as best he could. Blows struck against and across his armor from every side, the mail too well crafted to pierce and too complete to avoid. The blows struck so hard that they would have knocked him from his horse, had not still other blows been striking from his other side. He was being crushed by his own armor, his shoulder screaming out in agony from the pressure. His horse screamed a chillingly human shriek, blood pouring out from its sides as a river. It would have fallen had there not been too many men for it to go. Publius was a dead man propped atop a dead horse. He wondered if he would go to heaven for trying.
But a second passed. And then another. He still wasn’t dead. He could feel blood running from his legs, but that seemed almost surreal. It didn’t even hurt. His head still rung from his helmet, the helm gashing over his eye. It was bleeding down his face as all scalp wounds did, with that seemingly endless stream. But that was almost laughable. His ribs were probably broken from the pressure or at least bruised. His breath was a tearing fire of pain. It was almost funny. He just kept waiting for the real blow to arrive. Then he looked to either side, and the banners weren’t green. They were white with a hand holding a golden light. He was surrounded by his own men, who desperately were dying on every side so that he might live. He stared to see the wedge of his riders pressing in, saving him, staking all their lives if it meant the faintest chance of saving him. Then he looked ahead to see the King, who was staring with wide eyes straight back at him. He was only thirty yards away. His chariot was turning, he was going to escape. Publius thought for the maddest moment that he could throw his sword and claim the King. No sword was killing from thirty yards. He kicked his horse, expecting it to move, then realized it was cold against his burning bleeding thighs. Damned horse. It could have lived another minute. That’s all he would have asked. Publius waved his sword and shouted, pointing at the King. The men saw and heard through the din, pushing with all their might. But the Datians were the best of the best, the King’s elite guard. They would not budge. He was going to get away.
Then he heard another trumpet, then a hundred more, and a cheer so loud as to split the sky. The Fifth Eagle slamming into the foe, brushing them aside and breaking them as though mere flies. Impossible. They had not been fighting for thirty minutes. He swore no more than a minute had passed. He tried to dismount, but a wave of dizziness and nausea went through his head. He struggled to tear his helmet off, to get a breath of air. That helped a little, though now the blood was running quicker. In his haste he had cut it more. He tried to step again, but a wave of fire went through his chest. He must have turned too far. All he wanted was off his horse. His stupid dead horse that wouldn’t fall. Couldn’t Illyria let him off his horse? He tried to slide down again, overbalancing, and this time such pain struck him that he fainted before he even reached the ground. The last thing he saw was the King running away.
Publius awoke to the most horribly bitter tasting concoction that had ever entered his mouth. If he hadn’t been unconscious, it never would have. Already he was trying to spit it out, but to no avail. The creeping oozy liquid slipped down his throat to torment the rest of his body, as more steadily came in from behind. Publius flailed his arms out to kill the man giving him drink before the drink could kill him.
“Easy there.” A firm hand grabbed both his arms and pushed them back to the bed. It was amazing how weak he was. He could resist those hands as easily as move a boulder. “Somehow you didn’t break your arms, but you don’t need to try now.”
Publius coughed. It was no use. He had already swallowed. He had to swallow or it would have choked him. “What was that?”
“It woke you up, didn’t it?” Brutus said, utterly pleased with himself. “Everyone is asking about you. The whole army is waiting for someone to tell them you’re alright.”
“Am I?” Publius didn’t feel very right.
“All ten fingers and toes. A new set of scars for the ladies. Every man’s dream.”
“Tell me what happened.” Publius demanded, cutting to the only important thing.
“Your detachment is basically gone. You’re a marshal of ghosts.”
“How many left?”
“Perhaps a hundred that can lift a sword. Two hundred lying in cots nearby.”
“That’s not so bad.” Publius sighed, closing his eyes. He wondered if Falco lived. He didn’t want to ask. It would be a sign of weakness, that he cared for anyone. “Did we get the King?”
Brutus paused for a moment. “No.”
“You have to be kidding me. He was only thirty yards away. They were breaking. You had to have gotten the King.”
“Yes well we didn’t.” Brutus sighed. “The Datians were too tough, the knot you hit. You hit the core of the entire kingdom, the best of the best. It’s a wonder three hundred of your men survived.”
“Yes but I saw them breaking!” Publius tried to rise his voice, but just ended up coughing. “It damned well worked!”
“Yes it worked, the army scattered back to the towns they came from, like mist on the wind. The king’s guard fought and died as best they could and we killed them as fast as we could, and the King fleeing on his chariot with our riders close behind. The whole thing worked, Publius, like a damned miracle it worked.”
“Then why didn’t you get the King!”
“Because the King came with his baggage, his pomp and his servants and his tents of silk and harem of almost nude women. And when the King fled, he left it all behind, and when our men reached it, they stopped. They got off their horses to take as much as they could before the others came to loot their own.”
Publius laughed in despair. “For gold. There flees the King—our peace, our homeland, our children, our wives, our honor, and our triumph, so that we could keep his gold.”
“He’ll flee to the Centaurs, now.” Brutus sighed. “He’ll let the Centaurs reconquer Datia in order to remain its King. He’d sign a pact with Mahara if he could only find Him.”
Publius closed his eyes. “What does it matter? We already signed one with Sheole.”
“Well at least you fainted before you had to see it.” Brutus cursed again. “I never thought I’d see such a thing. Not in my wildest dreams. I never thought I’d call my own brethren dogs.”
“Who are we fooling?” Publius just wanted to fall back unconscious. No triumph. No return with glory. No peace. The war would just keep going. And he would somehow have to win that too. Illyria had given him the crown, and Sheole had stolen it away. The demons always did. They were always there to destroy everything, twist everyone, foil all the makings and all the makers of the earth. He had been a fool to think this one time it would be different. The demons always won. And that he thought that was another victory right there. For Sheole? Or Zakine? Publius was too tired to care. “We’re not dogs, but jackals. Come only to tear and rend. Dogs could excuse this war as a necessary evil. But we lost that right. The only reason we were ever here was for the evil itself.”
“Not you, my friend.” Brutus gripped his hand tightly. “You aren’t dog or jackal, and the whole Legion knows it. You alone remain a hero.”
“Father was a hero, Brutus.” Publius refuted. “No one here deserves that name. Least of all me.”
“That’s your sickness talking. You’ve been lying there for a week. Once they’ve fed you and you’ve gotten outside, and see the light in everyone’s eyes. . .once you hear the tone people will have when they address you. . .you’ll know yourself a hero. With an exploit as grand as any of your father’s or all of them combined.”
“Brutus, stop.” Publius trembled. “If you truly knew me, you’d have killed me as the darkest bloodiest heart of all. The very word hero makes me cringe. From your lips, it burns like molten steel.”
“What is it, then?” Brutus seemed angry. “Because you didn’t capture the King yourself? Because you didn’t break the army until Muscianus came? Because you praised the Republic in front of all your men at the very time everyone else seeks its end? Where is your evil, Publius! Name your evil!”
“I. . .” Publius opened his mouth, closed it. He couldn’t tell Brutus. What could he say? He shouldn’t have said anything at all. He just refused to have this man’s friendship when he was going to betray him. He refused to betray his own friends.
“I don’t care who you touched when you were twelve or what you did that one night that one time. I don’t care who you envied or who you despised or who you wanted to kill. Publius, if your thoughts were evil, then the whole of humanity is damned! The only thoughts I can judge you by are the thoughts so strong that you acted upon them. The rest are just thoughts. Phantoms, Publius! Mirages of the mind! They aren’t real. They aren’t you. The only Publius that has truly existed is the one I see before me today. And that man is a hero. Deny it one more time and you call me a liar! Name me a liar and I will be forced to bury you.”
“I’m a hero! I’m a hero!” Publius surrendered in mock-terror.
“Alright then. It’s night, and I feel like sleeping.” Brutus stood up. “Besides, I want to be the first person to tell the army you’re going to be okay.”
“Tell them to get me some water, will you? That stuff tasted horrible.”
“Will do.” Brutus gave a little bow, and went out of the tent. Publius stared at the top of his tent with a small smile. A hero. High praise. Brutus would never say something if he didn’t mean it. He would never honor someone unless that person lived up to his own standard. To be called a hero was like unto being called a brother. It was that important to Brutus. He cared that much. His smile only widened when the slaves came in with water and soup. He just might be able to keep soup down. A week without food was not the best way to recover. Time to start. If he meant to die somewhere outside this bed, he’d better start soon. The Centaurs were just around the horizon.
Outside he heard a cheer, at first, small, then sweeping through the Legion like a firestorm. At first it was wordless, but eventually it felt into a thunder of Sunhand! Sunhand! Sunhand! Publius smiled. The same cheers were given Marcellus once. He had done it. He’d lived up to his father. When he fell back asleep, he hardly felt his wounds at all.
I’m writing to you to apologize, and to thank you. I’m sorry that I couldn’t give you the world, and I’m thankful that you already gave it to me. I’m sorry that I couldn’t give you life, and I’m thankful that in you I finally lived. I’m sorry that I couldn’t save you, or your people, or your Goddess, but I’m thankful that you saved me, and through me my people, and my Goddess. I’m sorry I can’t return to you, but I’m thankful that someday you’ll return to me. I’m sorry. . .for everything. I’m sorry. . .I’m just sorry. And I’m grateful. . .for everything. For life, for love, for warmth, for joy, for the feel of your back, your breast, your lips, your neck, your hair, your glance, your smell, your arms. . .for all the blessings and all the bliss that could possibly lay under the sun. Know that all my sorrow is only that I could not thank you the more.
Someone who loves you.”
“Publius?” An attendant called fretfully. “Are you in there?” Publius looked up from his paper, wondering if there was anything left out to say. He could think of a million things, but had no idea how to write them. A billion trillion things that he needed to say, and no power on earth to say them. This would just have to do.
“Publius?” The attendant came up behind him. “Can you stand? We can’t leave you here.”
Publius put away his quill with trembling hand, barely able to place it in the jar. He sprinkled sand over the ink and carefully rolled it up.
“Publius.” The attendant wrung his hands. “Please—“
Publius stood, quickly, strongly. His ribs could hurt some other day. His shoulder could whine about it tomorrow. “Please, on your life, take this. On your honor, take this to the lady Mirian, a jeweler, in the city of Damask. For the love of love.”
“Sir.” The attendant took the rolled up paper as though a fragile dove. “On my life, sir.” The sound of trumpets broke through the morning ether, as if in challenge to the distant drums. People were running everywhere, securing their arms or their mounts, mouthing their prayers alone or in circles. The Datian King had fled to the Centaur warlord, trading his realm for his regency. Now the whole of the Centaur horde came like the wind for their blood. And three pitiful legions stood against the army that toppled empires. It was hopeless to think of victory or mercy. The Centaurs always won, and they never had mercy. Theirs was a world of blood and blood alone.
Legions died hard, though. They weren’t like other armies, they were the greatest military juggernauts known to man. Not because of their numbers, nor their weapons, nor their armor, nor even their spirit, nor their courage, nor their strength. They were the strongest because they would not break. Every ten men had their squadman, ever century their centurion, every thousand their marshal, every ten thousand their consul. Everyone knew exactly where they should be and what they should be doing. Everyone had a leader near at hand to look to. Everyone could rest easy knowing the shield of their companion was covering their unshielded side. Discipline, training, confidence, coolness, silence. Each legionnaire always a part of the greater whole. The whole Legion fighting as one. The Legion would not die until every man in it was killed, all of them fighting and living as the Legion, and not themselves. The Datian forces were as divided as there were nobles, a motley morass of men who had never seen nor fought beside each other before. They were a land of slaves, fighting only because they must. The Legions were different, and they intended to prove it. Not to find victory. The Centaurs rode like the wind. There was no hope of actually breaking or destroying them. But simply to avoid defeat. So long as the Legions maintained discipline, they were invincible. All they had to do was escape. Run, for thousands of miles, back to Caria, harried all the way, with perfect discipline. It was the only chance they had. Publius had seen greater miracles. Forty thousand ogres killed in an hour. Three hundred thousand breaking from the charge of ten. Illyria had granted greater miracles. Publius only hoped Crassus held her favor as much as his family. Publius gave a small smile. He believed in that hope so much he’d already said goodbye. But he had to hope. So long as he lived, he would hope for life. That’s what living meant.
“Publius, can you ride?” Muscianus asked him as he reached the Consul’s tent.
“Sir.” Publius saluted sharply, not betraying how much it hurt. Except, if he could contain the pain, then that was proof enough that he was well enough. Muscianus would expect him to cover the pain as best he could. So in a way, it was no deception at all.
“Alright then, I’m putting your detachment in reserve. You’re to observe the battle and report the results to the Senate. That’s three hundred men to see you across the rest of Datia. Tell them what happened. Tell them how they fight. It’s worth more to Illyria than a thousand extra men.”
“Yes sir.” Publius nodded. It was a great trust and a great task, but he couldn’t help but feel the bile in his throat. Ordered to run away. That was a worse order than to charge. Death before dishonor. And yet that was not his choice. It had been an order. He had been ordered to accept dishonor before death. Which meant, in disobeying, he would only be dishonored the more. No way out. Muscianus was forcing him to live. Publius looked at his Consul, the thoughts running through his mind, and the Consul nodded, ever so slightly. No one else could have seen it. And then it all became clear. Not ordered to live. Ordered to rule. Publius’ fists clenched of their own will. Not like this. Not fleeing in terror. Not through cowardice. I can’t come home like this. Not for the world.
The drums were coming closer, faster than the Illyrians were used to. The orders were cut short as trumpets began to cry. People began running to their places, banners waving in the wind. Publius wondered how he would walk to his horse, but thankfully a slave came running up with a new one. Then Publius remembered his horse had died. He would’ve walked all that way for nothing. It made him want to laugh. He was more worried about the pain of walking then the battle ahead. Maybe because pain was real, and death was just a concept, a dream. . .death could never be real to the living. Because the only time they’d understand it, they’d already be dead. For the living, pain was more worrisome than death. Helped onto his saddle, Publius gritted his teeth, hard, and sat straight. Don’t make me gallop. He prayed. Let this horse fly. Just don’t make me gallop. He walked the horse out of the scurry to the Sunhand banner waving defiant in the wind. The men there were mostly wounded, calling them a reserve was more out of dignity than truth. Half of them couldn’t have lifted a sword had they wished. But they were his men, and he was their marshal. It was a contest to see which smiled with fiercer pride to behold the other.
“We’ve come this far, men.” Publius said. “We can go the rest. We’ll see this to the end.”
The men nodded, sitting stiffly on their saddles. They were all veterans now.
“We’re to take up the rear. Let’s be at it.” The drums were booming distressingly loud. How many were there? They couldn’t be further than five miles. The men rode quickly, though only relative to their injuries. Two months had not been enough, and there had been no new men to replace them. This was the same detachment that had won a war, only to lose it from the greed of their companions. Two months had not been long enough for any of them to want to fight again. Publius spotted the healthiest and most able men he could, gathering them together a few yards apart. Datia simply refused to have hills. It was just flat grass and sand stretching to infinity. Perfect land for nomads. Perfect land for horsemen. The most terrible land foot could ask for. “You twenty, you’re ordered to stay right here. Take double rations, triple if you can. Borrow it from your friends. You’re not fighting today. You’re going home, to tell them what happened today. If you see the battle failing, you ride. Don’t look back. You tell them that the Centaurs are on their way. We have to stop them somewhere. The sooner you get home, the sooner we stop them, with the whole of Illyria marching back to save us. The sooner you get home, the less of Illyria must burn and bleed for dogs. Understood?”
The men nodded gravely. “Sir, why aren’t you coming, then?”
“Three hundred men traveling together would never make it. Not in our condition. The Centaurs would overtake us and run us down, and not a soul to warn Illyria of their coming. No, it has to be you alone. Split up, and Illyria will lead one of you home. Twenty healthy single men are the only chance of someone getting home in time.”
“Yes sir.” They saluted. “It was my honor, sir.” One of them added. And then the rest joined in, one following the next. Until all twenty had pledged their lives to him. Publius just stared at them quietly. He had lived so long for those words. A rush of warmth seemed to seep through him, washing away his pain. It was worth it. It was all worth it. He could die now, knowing he had done it right. Knowing his life complete. He only hoped Marcus would understand. He knew Mirian would.
The Centaurs came into view, a line of horses stretching and stretching with no end. They could ride leaning over one side, shooting arrows along the way. They were the best damned archers the world had ever known. They could hit with every shot upside down, shooting between their horses’ legs. They were born on their horses and died on them. They didn’t even know how to walk, it was said. And half their children were born from mares and not women. Publius was sure it was all fable. But he didn’t know how much. A flash of memory rushed through him, Mirian looking up with that guileless wonder, asking if he were a being out of fable. By Illyria, he wanted to live. He wanted to live so much it hurt. His fists clenched tight enough to feel the bite of his nails. Not like this. I can’t live like this. Not running home a coward. I can’t run. Life like that is no life at all. Better dead living than living dead. He ran it through his head like a mantra.
The left wing stirred, the Fifth Eagle charging forward, leaving the foot behind. It might work, letting the foot retreat behind the charging of the horse. Publius watched and prayed for it to work. Maybe the Centaurs’ arrows couldn’t pierce armor. Certainly not shields. The bows were too small. Maybe they wouldn’t know how to fight with lance and sword. Maybe the Fifth Eagle could keep the Centaurs off the twenty thousand men for the next month to come, and they could just ride back into camp tonight. A light of hope opened up in him when he saw the Centaurs pulling back in confusion and disarray. Before the Eagle had even reached them, after a few pitiful arrow flights, the Centaurs across from them began to turn and flee. Until, like a wave of panic, the whole line had disintegrated, the barbarians all rushing away at the greatest speed they could force out of their horses.
The trumpets pealed even to Publius’ ears, a note of glee and triumph as they pursued. The Fifth Eagle riding hard almost on their heels. And then Publius saw it all in horror. Armored cavalry could never hope to catch the nomads, trained riders, with the toughest horses in the world.
“No, Muscianus. NO.” Publius breathed. Whispered. “They’re leading you away. They’re leading you away!” The Centaurs were breaking, the Fifth Legion following without a care, ready to ride ten miles to catch their prey. And there stood twenty thousand foot, totally alone, and the rest of the Centaurs smiling and circling like sharks.
“By the Goddess.” The bannerman swore in recognition. The men began to murmur, seeing it all unfold, helpless to stop it. That many men had never died at once. But they were utterly helpless. The Centaurs were keeping out of the range of javelins, circling around, peppering them with arrows. If they moved at all it would mean breaking their shield wall, their only protection from the deadly hail. They were stuck like frozen ducks awaiting the slaughter. And there wasn’t a single thing anyone could do.
“They can’t do that forever.” Publius thought out loud. “They’ll run out of arrows. The shield wall stands. Not many could die from that, at that range.” The men watched, reassured by his calm. It was true, for all the Legion’s position, surrounded and frozen still, the Centaurs couldn’t hurt them. It was almost a standoff. Until Muscianus returned to his senses and saw he’d been played the fool. He would return, and all would be well.
But the horsemen didn’t run out of arrows. The moment men did, they would just return to their line for more, and new men would take their place. Soon the riders danced in closer, daring men to strike back with their darts. Some men were growing tired, hot, scared, sweaty, from holding their shields and hearing the thunk of force that was directed for their heads. Some arrows shot over their heads, arcing gently back down to play havoc with those inside. Shields were lapped over the heads of those kneeling, the wall becoming tighter, but that was an even more tiring stance, as the weight of arrows rained down upon them. There were motions in the Centaur main line, drums being sounded as men came into position. Publius saw the lances with dread. They weren’t just archers then. The arrows were just to soften them. The lancers would come for the kill. And they would come soon. Before the Fifth could return.
The bannerman slapped his own thigh with a curse. It snapped something in Publius. He couldn’t just sit and watch anymore. “Attendant!” He shouted out in a clear voice. “Sound the charge.”
“Sir?” The man looked up, the others coming to life with a light in their eye.
“We’re breaking them free. For when the Fifth gets back. We’re going to be heroes one more time.”
“Yes sir.” And then he smiled, raising the trumpet to his lips. Smiled as he sounded the note of his own death. The horses began at a fast walk, Publius again leading the way. No reason to be safe any longer. Nothing but to do as much as he could. Saving the very man he had meant to kill. But it was worth it, because it would mean saving his own soul along with him. Before the lancers could get their position, the two hundred horses that could gallop launched themselves upon the skirmishing unsuspecting prey. The Centaurs scattered in terror, the Sunhand banner keeping his men close in line, sweeping the archers away, cutting them down before they could lay hand on sword or spear. Publius cut and slashed with Lucian steel, spurring his horse first this way then that, disrupting clumps before they could become any real resistance, shattering the whole encirclement with surprise alone.
It was no wonder, then, that the arrows that were shot were firstmost aimed at him. And it was no fable, that their arrows shot true. He didn’t even notice the moment he died--falling off his horse, crumpling to the sand, rolling a few times with momentum, and finally laying still.
“I have to go.” Marcellus constrained his fury. It wasn’t for Lydra, never for her. But he was so angry it was a marvel he didn’t explode, much less let it overflow him and run into her. There was this terrible pressure between his temples, that wasn’t even an ache as much as a pressing. He was radiating heat, his hands hot to the touch, like a fever. “They killed our son.”
“Please,” Lydra entreated. “listen to me. Don’t turn away. Don’t run away. This was war, your son died charging them in broad day. There’s no murder to avenge!”
“All war is murder.”
“Then you know it wrong to retaliate in kind! There’s no justice in this!”
“There’s no justice in losing two of our children in the same day. If the Gods need not be just, then nor need we. If the Gods can find all the light in the world and snuff it out, then so can we. There’s no standard left to us. There’s no example to follow. If the Gods can be capricious then so can we. I don’t want or need a reason to do anything. Our son is dead. Our daughter is dead. And I sit here! And I wasn’t there for either of them!”
“So what, you’ll be there for them now? By joining them in the grave? Is that it? Abandon me, abandon Marcus, abandon Illyria, all so that you can return to them? And what would they want from you? What could you possibly do for them? They both chose how to live and how to die. They both chose to leave you behind. What would they possibly want with you, if you reached them again? I’m the person who chose to stay at your side!” Lydra wailed. “The only person you could ever abandon is me! The only person who has ever needed you is me. The only person you ever swore to keep is me.”
“Why are you doing this?” Marcellus turned on her. “You’ve never tried to hold me back before. Why now? Why when I most want to go?”
“Because, love, before you never wanted to go.” Lydra stared at him earnestly, eyes wide. “Before I always knew where your heart rested. . .and now I see it leaving me for love of something else. . .something ugly.”
Marcellus felt tired. Felt old. Felt worn out and used up. He was doing something wrong, and it was tearing him from the one thing that had always, without question, without reserve, from the very start, loved him. Everything he touched withered and died. He knew that now in a place deeper than his own soul. Everything he ever touched withered and died. It all fell to ruin. He ruined everything. And the worst thing was, he didn’t even know how. Or why. He just knew that it always did.
“What would you have of me?” Marcellus asked quietly. “Both our children dead on the same day. My grandchild. . .dead before it was born. Publius dead before he ever lived. . .it has to be a sign. Things like this don’t just happen. Illyria doesn’t just destroy entire families out of caprice.” Marcellus smiled, knowing he had just said the opposite the moment before. But he’d known it false even in saying it. Of course the Goddess had a reason. The reason was he had been mistaken. He had lived it wrong. Publius shouldn’t have had to fight his war. Illyria had given the mantle to him, to protect her. And he had abandoned her in her time of need. She had even sent his own son to remind him, and he had abandoned her even then. Worse, he had used her very name as the reason to abandon her. Twice cursed, to use as a shield the very thing he was meant to shield. A perversion of all that was just and right and fair.
“Marcellus, I can’t lose you.” Lydra stated. “My children lay dead. . .the children I bore, the children I gave life to. You are all I have left, you and Marcus. You are all that I live for now. I can’t lose you too.”
“It’s not like that. . .” Marcellus searched for words. “Living for me. . .isn’t living with me. It’s living for. . .all the greatness. . .that our souls can only together reach.”
“You’ve built and protected a city. You’ve inspired and helped everyone around you. That is great. Not leaving everything that needs and loves you to go kill.”
“Not to kill.” Marcellus sighed. “But to take up the duty I should never have let down. To save us from all the killers of the world.”
“Why would you protect them? Why won’t you protect me? Why is your duty always to others, and never to yourself? Why can’t you ever be there when I need you?” Lydra implored.
Marcellus closed his eyes, hard, trying to find the words that would set him free. “Because in valuing them. . .I assert the value of my own soul. . .and the right to be valued by everyone else. In serving them. . .I earn the right that others must serve me. Because everything worthy about me is not mine alone, but must be valued in everyone I find, if I should give any value to myself for it. Because my honor is my right to pride, and my pride my spur to honor.”
“Are these words meant for me, or yourself?” Lydra asked, quietly. The quiet still voice that was on the brink of surrender. “This wasn’t the reason you had before.”
Marcellus smiled. “This is the only reason why anyone should do anything. It is my only reason left to me now. You stole away all the rest.”
Lydra smiled, sadly, because she knew he would leave her now, and that she would let him go. Because he was right, and because she had to, to have any right to hold him.
“I believe you. . .and your reason.” She took a long breath, gathering her thoughts. “You are her champion. I’ve seen it too many times to doubt now. But love, don’t you dare think you’ve failed Her. Don’t leave out of guilt and shame, returning to her like some adulterer, contrite and abased. You aren’t just yourself, but everything you love and cherish. It wasn’t that Publius took up the mantle you let down. . .it was that you carried the mantle the whole time. You have always been her champion. You were her champion when you nurtured a tiny babe from sickness to health. You were her champion when Marcus inspired the whole of Scamander with piety. You were her champion when you gave your life to preserve an army’s. You were even her champion when you convinced yourself to go to war out of love and not hate. It is all you. And you have always been hers. And she has always loved you, and you have always been true to her. You didn’t forsake her, not once. You’re hers, heart and soul, always and forever. All that you love, all that loves you. . .loves the Goddess most of all. And don’t you see? To love her most of all. . .that makes you Her most of all. Marcellus, you’re not just her champion. . .in loving her. . .you are Illyria. And Illyria is you. I look at you and I see the Goddess, fair beyond fair, a beauty divine. I married into a race of angels.”
Marcellus smiled. “You couldn’t have married into one. . .because you already were.” Then he swallowed, and she smiled. And they were so old. . .and their love so new. Because they had just fallen in love again. And the worst thing was. . .they had only done it, said it, because they knew it was the last time they could. The worst thing was they fell in love just to say goodbye. Marcellus kissed her, turning away to hide his tears. And as he left to take back his sword. . .he didn’t know that Lydra was crying too, the tears falling silently the moment he had turned.
Marcellus looked upon the ragged men quietly, betraying no thoughts. He had hoped to lead men to the reinforcement of Crassus, not the replacement. But these men couldn’t be expected to fight save from desperation, and then only in exhaustion. That was the battle they had waged the entire month of retreat they had endured, the Centaurs hounding and harassing them from every side, having to fight for every step home, because the Centaurs weren’t content with surrender but only slaughter. Only the unearthly discipline of the Legions had seen them intact across such a length for so long. No amount of extra men would infuse strength back into these men. It would be years before they could be asked to fight again. Stragglers were cut off and killed, and so now there were no stragglers. The Legion just carried those who couldn’t keep marching until they could again, each friend looking to each friend, the legion’s shield wall preserving them from any direct attack, moving as slow as a mile in a day. Sometimes that was the best they could do.
Well, if he couldn’t turn their strength to his advantage, maybe he could turn their weakness. Marcellus smiled at the obvious insanity of the thought, but also because he was already thinking along that pathway and already finding a strategy in it. He smiled because he’d found an answer in a joke.
“What is it, sir?” The attendant asked, leading him to Crassus’ tent. Crassus hadn’t deigned to meet him when he arrived. He was too important, too busy to meet his saviour. Sheole, Sheole. Only you could replace vanity for pride. It would be too shameful to admit that he needed help, that he was retreating, that his army was on the brink of collapse and death. Too shameful to admit he’d made a mistake, or been mistaken. No, Crassus had done everything right, and was exactly where he wanted to be, everything going according to plan. If there was anything worse than an idiot, it was a person ruled by his idiocy. If he were Crassus, he would have met himself at the front of the gate, explained the situation, the enemy’s tactics and strength, his resources, and then right there in front of his troops pledged his loyalty and would have asked what Marcellus wanted him to do. He wouldn’t have apologized, or simpered, or begged, or bowed. He wouldn’t have admitted any mistake either, because no one cared and it didn’t matter anymore. The only thing that mattered was getting his men out alive, and stopping the Centaurs. And the only way to have redeemed himself would have been to commit himself to that, and not care what anyone thought of him, not even himself, but instead just done his best to address the task at hand. And if he were Marcellus, he would have thanked Crassus for his help, and honored him for holding out an entire month on the retreat and saving all his men. Because Marcellus would have known that here was a good person, who had made a mistake, but was willing to throw himself off a cliff if he thought that would somehow help relieve the harm of it. And for such a person, he would praise and honor, in front of all his men, in the hopes that his men would forgive and follow him still, because they would be serving someone who already served them. Marcellus smiled. And if he were Crassus’ men, he would cheer his speech, and honor their leader, even though he had driven them all to ruin, because they saw that though his understanding was bad, his judgment was good, and on the field of honor judgment was the measure alone. They would cheer Crassus, and then they would pledge their loyalty to Marcellus as well, and follow his commands to the letter. Because on the field of battle understanding was the measure alone. Crassus would defer, Marcellus would praise him, the army would love him, and then they would go beat the Centaurs together, and no one would be ashamed, and no one would be lying, and no one would be idiotic. If only he were just everyone. Then there wouldn’t even be any Centaurs to fight. Because he would just turn around and go home, and leave all the rest of his selves to go home too. In fact, if he were everyone, the whole world would be his home, and everyone could go anywhere and be home, because it was all him, and it was all home. And everyone would do the obvious and sensible and just plain right thing in their life, and everyone would live in the right way, because it was just too stupid to do it any other way. And then everyone would be happy, but that hardly mattered. What really mattered is that then they wouldn’t be such idiots. If everyone were him, he could make it through a whole day without wondering why the world didn’t just explode out of despair for its inhabitants. But then, if everyone were him, he couldn’t have married Lydra. He couldn’t have had Publius and Jania and Marcus. He never would have met Maximus or Fabius or Sertorius. If everyone were him, and the whole world his home. . .he would die from loneliness. So if for every Lydra a Crassus had to exist, Marcellus counted it a bargain. If for every Lydra there were a million Crassuses, he would thank Illyria for her kindness. Because in the end, the only person who would ever matter was Lydra. The only person he’d be with was Lydra. The only person he’d care about was Lydra. And the rest could be as stupid or malicious or cruel or evil as they wanted, because it wouldn’t touch him at all. It would all just slide away, like water off oil, like it didn’t exist at all. Because to him, they didn’t. Because he wasn’t about to waste his life on them when he had her. If someone were going to have power over him, it would be her, because she was the only person worth belonging to. Because he knew that the only power she would ever have is to bring a smile to his face, a warmth in his heart, a pride in his life, a determination in his actions, a rebuke to his excesses, a laugh at life, a comfort at death. To be angry at Crassus was as stupid as Crassus himself. Because instead he could be thinking how much he loved his wife, and how perfect she was, and how special she made him. Because of all the people he could let control him, Crassus was the most ridiculous and Lydra the most blessed he could possibly imagine. So instead he smiled, and loved her, and forgot the stupidity of a general too vain to save his own honor and his only right to pride, all the way until he reached the tent.
He even forgot all the soldiers looking at him as he walked smiling past them, not even seeing them, but with a glow in his face and a lightness in his step that they couldn’t help but smile too. Who smiled, and felt safe, and saved, because Marcellus was here and he was happy so obviously they would win after all. In the legions, his smile alone was promise enough of victory. Because he had never lost, and his men had always gone home. And in these legions, they had known his son, and loved him. Because so long as Publius had been with them, they had won, and now that his father was there, they knew they would win again.
Marcellus entered the command tent, Crassus bent over his map sweating. “About time.” Crassus complained. “What have you been doing, sleeping twenty hours of every day?”
Marcellus took off his cloak. “We were only informed of the situation fifteen days ago. A courier who hadn’t slept nor eaten for three days, having ridden at least ten horses to death and had started stealing them when he couldn’t buy them any more. I was only informed ten days ago, when another string of couriers had ridden all the way up the Republic to the edge of Mania. And for the past ten days I’ve ridden hard enough to cover the same ground it took the couriers twenty. Though granted, you’re a month closer march now than you were then. The army won’t reach you for another ten days yet. It has had to march all the way from Scamander.”
“Ten days yet!” Crassus scowled. “How am I supposed to hold for ten days yet?”
“Maybe you should have thought of that before you overextended your forces, your messengers, and your supplies.” Marcellus judiciously commented.
“How was I supposed to know I’d have to fight nomads?” Crassus turned on him. “How can I be blamed? I went to conquer Datia and so I did! No one said I had to defeat Centaurs.”
“Funny. No one ever told me what would happen before my campaigns either.” Marcellus smiled widely. “It must be some sort of conspiracy.”
“I hope you didn’t come all this way to mock me.” Crassus sneered. “I have better things to do than to be lectured by an old, washed out, cuckolded, coward who retreats before every battle and surrenders after them.”
Marcellus thought of holding Lydra, of sleeping with Lydra, and closed his eyes. “I’m not here to mock you, Crassus. I’m here to save you, and all your men, and all your vanity in the bargain, if you’ll let me. And if you don’t let me, I’ll just save your men, and you can go trade insults with Sheole in hell.”
“Are you threatening me?”
“With nothing but your own stupidity.” Marcellus responded, and Crassus couldn’t figure out if that were a challenge or not and was left silent. It made him inestimably wiser.
“Your legions can’t fight another battle, we’ll be feeding them on hope and desperation alone for this last stretch. My legions can’t win this war, they’re raw and tired and on foreign ground of the enemy’s specialty. So this is what we’re going to do. We’re going to retreat, win this battle, and then surrender. In the most cowardly fashion possible. And then we’ll go home. And whenever people ask if you’re a coward, you can say no, it was all Marcellus’ fault. All you ever did was throw away ten thousand men in a fruitless and meaningless war. And you can smile at yourself in the mirror and be proud.” Marcellus smiled at Crassus the whole time. After that Crassus was even quieter. For some reason whenever Marcellus smiled and spoke softly everyone thought he was going to kill them. It was odd. But then again, it was also very helpful. And most likely very true. It made him feel better at shouting at his family. That wasn’t anger. If he had been angry, he would have been smiling. It was good to know that his family had never seen him smile at them and talk softly. That with them he could never truly be angry. It was good to know that his children had lived and died knowing they had never made him angry, but only proud and then proud and then proud. It was really good to know.
“Win this battle, you say.” Crassus finally spoke. “How?”
Marcellus walked over to the map, pointing at the great river that fed the heart of Leucadia. “We’ll fight them here. We’ll crush them here, and then we’ll both want to go home.”
“You have a steady stream of stragglers, defectors?” Marcellus asked peremptorily. Crassus nodded after a while, not wanting to admit it. “And the Centaurs catch and kill them?” Crassus nodded again. “That’s all? Or is that what the men are told?”
“Perhaps some of them get away.” Crassus admitted. “But far fewer than if they had stayed with us. You can’t be suggesting. . .?”
“Of course not. They’d be hunted down and killed and only one in a thousand would be lucky enough to survive the environment, the Centaurs, the Datians, and the journey. No, if we’re going to escape this land, it’s as a legion, and the defectors must be caught and executed ourselves if the Centaurs don’t. By defecting, they abandon their men, their oath, their country, and their Goddess. Worse, they inspire others to do the same, until there’s a chain of chaos rippling through the Legions like a plague.”
“Then why this talk of defectors?”
“Because I want to know if any defectors have turned traitor, and not just deserted. I want to know if any of our men have showed up as our pursuers the next day. Do the Centaurs actually kill all the men they catch? Even the ones that go willingly to them?”
Crassus bit his lip. “Some of the wounded. . .would stay behind, hoping the Centaurs would care for them where we could not. Some who were willing to do anything for a drink of water. . .many out of sheer exhaustion, thinking living as slaves would be better than taking another step. . .that’s sort of trickled off. Only the strong remain now.”
“Still some defect, though?” Marcellus pressed.
“Of course, a few every day, a few every night, there’s always some.”
“And the Centaurs? Do they care for any, take any as slaves?”
“All cultures take slaves.” Crassus frowned. “If they’re pretty or strong or talented, there’s always a market for them. I don’t see why the nomads would be any different. It’s hardly a fate I could wish of even a traitor, though. . .” There was a regular practice of making eunuchs out of prisoners of war, in order to pacify them. Or chopping off their thumbs, so they could no longer hold a weapon, or putting out their eyes, or cutting out their tongue. . .a slave had little hope of escaping a whole man, and even then most likely he would be branded on the cheek, and his children after him, and so on down the years. It was a fate Marcellus could never wish of an Illyrian, but one they had chosen for themselves, so he held no sympathy for them. “What are you getting at?” Crassus finally demanded. At least he was being helpful now that he wasn’t worried about his place. Maybe Marcellus should walk around holding a sign that said—“I don’t plan to supplant you.” It wouldn’t help, though. Because people who lived in that cannibalistic world were incapable of believing that another existed. To them, denial would only be proof of its truth.
“Infiltrators.” Marcellus spoke softly. “Spies. Liars. Whatever you wish to call them. I suggest we allow a group of loyal men to ‘defect’ to the Centaur ranks. Enough to get one of them through to their leader’s ear, not enough to make them suspicious.”
“But that would be—“
“Cowardly?” Marcellus smiled. “Don’t worry, it’s my plan. Of course you needn’t sully yourself with it.”
“I just meant. . .” Crassus quickly tried to escape Marcellus’ smile. He gave up lying and just went back to the matter at hand. “And what will they do?”
“Upon facing the rigors of their captivity, they’ll seek preferential treatment by claiming to have vital information regarding our plans and the chance of the destruction of our forces. With enough concurrent voices, they’ll believe it has some merit in it, and there we are. The Centaurs will think they know our next move, move accordingly, and we’ll know how they’ll move before they do it, and move accordingly. They’ll fall right into our hands.”
“And where are our hands?” Crassus asked, still trying to unravel what Marcellus had just said.
“Waiting across the river, but far enough back that they don’t notice. All we have to do is get them to believe that we’re going to break for it upon crossing the river, and they’ll be so intent on crossing the river first and trapping us that by the time they find resistance it’ll be too late and half their disorganized pursuing men have been trapped against our own men and crushed. And when the other half finds themselves against a wholly new and untouched Illyrian army, they’ll think better than trying to ford that river, or take one more step into Leucadia. And that will be the end of it. The end of it, and we holding the richest part of Datia afterwards. Enough of a victory for all the people to hail your name.”
Crassus nodded. “Not half bad.” He stared at the map, and all the lands west of the Ibis, that were suddenly his once more. “Not bad at all.” Crassus smiled graciously. It was alright to be gracious in triumph, just never humble in defeat.
“Thank you.” Marcellus smiled, with complete feigned sincerity. He needed to get along with Crassus if these men were going to live. He could abide hypocrisy until then. Now it was just a matter of getting another perfect plan to work.
“Tamur sire,” The scribe announced at the entrance of his tent. It was a large tent, easily containing a home. The King of Datia had brought this tent along against the Illyrians, and strangely enough it had saved him. Then the Illyrians brought it against the Centaurs, except by the first battle, they had already left it behind along with all the other baggage in need for speed. So now it was his command tent, and strangely enough, the King of Datia was sitting beneath it and talking to him right now. The jests gods played with all the eddies and currents of the world. He smiled. It was obvious why humanity was born from the meeting of plain and sun—the gods needed someone who could appreciate their humor. Someone they could play jokes on, or else where was the fun in joking?
“Captain Messagi wishes audience with you.” Tamur raised his eyebrow with slight scorn. The King bowed deeply. “It is no affront, sire. I will withdraw if you wish.”
“Not at all.” Tamur gestured him to rise. “Scribe, send him in.” Then he turned back to the King pointedly. “It’s a pity your land is so rich. With land like this, your people must become so soft and plush and fat. They just scatter seeds and wait for food to grow into their mouths. Such a hopeless land to conquer. No matter how many farmers I killed, more would come for the land, and the moment I turned my back there would be a sprawling city once more. Even if I salted the land, the river would just bring more fertile soil, and more farmers would come to farm it, and more cities would grow. This Datia—“ Tamur laughed. “Is a goddess of weeds! Easily cropped, impossible to kill.”
The King gave a slight smile, not sure how he should respond. “She is a great Goddess for our people, who wish for soft and gentle lives. A gentle land for a peaceful people. Her blood is in us, so her nature rules us. . .the same nature that provided the land, the same nature that tills it.”
“Your Datia must be very loved.” Tamur nodded respectfully. “But we of the plains have little use for a loving god. We need a fierce father, not a soft mother. A god of wind and fire, sun and storm. This is the god that flows through our veins, the blood of strength and glory.”
“But what is the strongest man without anyone to reveal his strength?” The King asked. “The most glorious king without any subjects to hail him? The greatest god without any to worship him? All the highest mountains start with the widest bases, so that as they taper they can reach ever-higher through the sky.”
Tamur nodded, delighted at this King’s cunning. Dwellers in cities spent all their days learning how to become subtle and clever with their words, so it was no wonder that their King was the most delightful speaker of all. To let an empire survive even after its conquest, so as to reflect the glory of the people that ruled the empire. In a way, it was an accusation that a strong person wouldn’t destroy his underlings because that would admit he had some reason to fear them. A strong person would in fact preserve and cultivate his conquests, because they would only glorify him the more. A subtle argument, on every side. An appeal to Tamur’s own courage. Do you dare to preserve us? Of course he would have to dare now. It was too intriguing a vision to let pass. But the King would not know that Tamur had agreed to it, and not been tricked. The King might think he had some hold on his master, but in truth he had none at all. It would be enough to keep him in his place for the years to come.
“Very well, captain, you may speak.” Tamur finally allowed.
“Sire.” Messagi bowed. “Some of the wounded Illyrians were left behind these few nights past, but were still strong enough to walk. They were found cursing the traitors that had abandoned them.”
“Yes?” Tamur had dispatched the wounded because they were a burden, and deserters because they were cowards, but some few brave men were not. Those who had fought all this way until the end, but could fight no longer, though they could live with the slightest care. . .those were men worth saving, out of respect if for nothing else. These men did not deserve to die.
“They expected to be killed, and raised no resistance, only staring defiantly. So we took them prisoner, as too courageous for death. We thought to make them slaves, and tend to the horses. . .but some few cried that they could trade secrets for better treatment. It was their only chance at vengeance, they said. Shall I bring one before you?”
Tamur thought about it. Men of the city spent all their lives plotting and sneaking, and this seemed too good to be true. And yet, during this entire dilated battle, his opponent had not made one surprising or novel move. He had only retreated, step by step, fighting in the same manner each day, camping in the same manner each night. There was not a single moment when any flash of genius had shown through. If there was some trick in this, it would have been done long ago, and it would not have been the first trick. However, it fit exactly the sort of man who would abandon his own men for the hope of greater speed. A cowardly and stupid commander who had finally made one mistake too many. It made more sense than that same cowardly and stupid commander suddenly making a brilliant plot. So it wasn’t amazing that he had happened upon a way to destroy his stubborn enemy. It was only surprising that they hadn’t been destroyed already.
“Bring them in.” Tamur finally commanded. “I think they are not the only ones who wish for vengeance. It seems that Illyrians don’t stop at backstabbing allies, but even their own followers. They remind me of that term. . .what is it called?”
“Dogs, sire.” The King gleamed. “They are Illyrian dogs.”
“Dogs.” Tamur smiled. “That is a good name for them. A good insult all around.”
The spies had been wrong. Tamur noted this, and was pleased. If they had been right, then they would have obviously been planted. There was no way a few common legionnaires could have known the exact fallout of their commander’s decisions for days to come without being instructed by that commander. As it was, they were wrong, which meant they were mostly right. The Illyrians had not decided to rout after reaching the apparent safety of the river and the cities. Rather, they had decided to turn about and stand, hoping the river would be enough trouble crossing that cavalry would be no better than infantry in the fight ahead. It was a brave decision, and a wise one. But what they did not know is that Tamur had ridden hard the past few days, knowing of their plan to rout across the river, and determined to encircle them beforehand. That in fact only a half of his army was in direct pursuit of the Legions now, the rest having already overtaken them, waiting in ambush on the other side. Now all that was required was a charge on either side, and the army would be devoured. It was finally over, and Tamur smiled because things hadn’t gone right but they were going to anyway. In the end, discipline would always lose to mobility. The greatest warriors would always be the fastest, who could strike the hardest, quickest, and fiercest. The greatest warriors were those that could kill and not die. Disciplined armies were capable of killing, but they always died. Not his armies. With speed, he could escape any danger, and attack where they were most vulnerable, and at all times have the odds on his side. Every motion they made was that of a flailing giant, far too slow and cumbersome to hit the darting biting serpent. That was why this army was defeated, and all the others before, and all the rest to come. They had invested in the wrong strength, and though these were the strongest men Tamur had ever faced, it was the wrong strength, and thus it had lost. After this, he needn’t fear any of the nations of the west. He could just ride and ride, and they would all fail, because they were all too stupid and blind to see what a strong army was. So much the worse for them. There was a flash of irritation within, at how meaningless war had become. Like butchering helpless babies. There was no glory in this. Not like on the plains, where all the battles were as fierce as the fiercest, hottest storms. Where everyone rode, and everyone darted, and everyone could shoot down game from afar at the wildest gallop. That was war. . .this was just slaughter. And yet it was their own fault for being so stupid and blind and weak. The true crime wasn’t the slaughter he had brought to them, but that they had long before amputated their own arms with which to resist. So much the better that they should be extinguished and real men take their place. So much the better.
Except the charge didn’t come. He kept waiting for it, his drums to come pounding from behind. There his riders waited, looking at the stalwart Legion across the river, waiting for the sound of drums charging from behind. But no sound came. Surely now. Tamur waited a minute. Well perhaps that had been too early, but surely now. He waited again, his nows of expectation coming closer and closer together, until he was at a loss as to how any eventuality could explain it. It was as though they had simply vanished. The thought struck him as somehow terrifying because it was the only explanation.
“Where are they?” He shouted, to none in particular. “Where are my men?” None dared even raise an eye to him. “WHERE ARE THEY?” He screamed, staring at the Legion across from them with hatred. He swore they were mocking him. That they were laughing at him right now. And yet if he charged, odds were he would just vanish as well. He stared at them with pure hatred and was too afraid to attack, because he didn’t know what was going on. All he wanted was to know. And then he thought of his spies, and with a flash of rage ordered men to bring them. Except by the time anyone had thought to find them, they were all dead. Killed themselves, to avoid the worse fates to come. Tamur couldn’t even avenge himself on them.
“The last of them, sir.” The marshal smiled, the fresh sparkling smile of a boy who had seen war and loved it. The Centaurs had reached within a hundred yards of the river, before javelins had brought them down. The river was held by a whole Legion, to kill all those who escaped, to the north of Crassus, and another Legion, to the south. There were so many thousands upon thousands of men hunting and killing the Centaurs as they crossed that it was only a contest to see who would deliver the blow. All the Legions of Scamander, the fresh, parade soldiers who had thought to never fight but were overjoyed to have won, versus a steady string of hard pressed, hard-ridden, disorganized Centaurs fording the river only to discover there was no way back. It had been one of the easiest battles Marcellus had had to command. And here were the last of them, caught and killed. Not a single one escaping the box. And hardly a single loss on their own side. A true slaughter. But this one Marcellus felt no pity for, no remorse. They had killed his son. There was no remorse for them. There was no quarter given nor asked. There was no quarter for any of them. Not even a thought of it.
“The last of them, sir.” The marshal replied, as if to stress the point. Marcellus kept retreating from the world around him. It was hard to notice the world as it was today. Too much of the time he was living in the past, or in some world foreign to both. He shook his head, knowing it was a sign of danger. That he was losing himself. That he was becoming old, too old, so old that it was hard to think of himself as the same person he remembered he used to be. He was old and tired and he ached everywhere and someone had said something and he had forgotten what it was.
“Sir?” Now the men around him were truly worried. Perhaps Marcellus was angry? Disappointed? His face was unreadable. It was like he wasn’t even there. “Please, sir. Where should we deploy now? You have to have orders. We want to know what to do.”
Marcellus sighed, looking at him without recognizing him or why he was talking. “Oh, let’s be done with it.” He started riding forward, away from his men. “Form the Legions, like the best parade you’ve ever done. Horns blazing all the way, and march to the river’s edge. The left flank to Crassus, like a parade. And just be sure to show how perfectly invincible you are with every step.”
“Yes sir!” The marshal smiled, taking it as true praise. After all, they had been invincible.
“And tell the messengers, the battle is done. Tell them to take their places, and shine like butterflies, and we can be done with it.” Once Marcellus would have been proud of this moment. He had most probably saved the entire empire, perhaps the entire civilized world, from a force unlike any other, which he doubted any other general could have defeated. He had faced it, and destroyed it, and with hardly any expense to his name. It was one of the greatest triumphs Illyria had ever known.
But he wasn’t proud at all. He didn’t even care.
The men before him were bashful, ashamed. Some were even afraid. Most likely they were all afraid, but some were less capable of hiding it. They had come with Marcellus this whole march, the longest, hardest thing they had done in their entire lives, and he had done it with them. Then they had watched Marcellus deliver them a miracle, peace, victory, and triumph, at seemingly no cost at all, through seemingly no effort of their own. They had every reason to love him, the most venerated and esteemed man in Illyria since Maximus’ death. For Marcellus, now, was to join the rank of generals who had never lost a battle. But grander than that, grander than all of Maximus’ deeds, Marcellus had made every battle count, and won peace at the end of each. Maximus, and those who came before him, had used every battle as a stair step to the next. Marcellus had used it as the quickest way to a peace treaty, and everyone coming home. They loved him for that, too. Again, he had done the impossible, and made peace with the merciless slaughterers who days before would have stopped at nothing short of the oceans. He was so obviously blessed, and he had blessed them so. Which was why they were so ashamed right now, and most of all afraid, to stand before their fellow men.
Because it was their job to bring him back in chains.
“Sir!” The foremost legionnaire spoke, carefully and slowly. “In light of your most recent actions, the Senate has decreed for your return to Scamander, where you can explain yourself to your detractors.”
Marcellus only nodded, smiling. He had known the cost of leaving his self-imposed exile the day he had gone. By returning to the field, he had begun warring not with the Centaurs, but with all the power-hungry would-be-rulers of Illyria. The war he had come to fight was won--this war he never chose, and refused to fight.
“There are so many accusations. . .the Senate just means to clear your name, I’m sure.” The boy spoke. It was what he wished the Senate were doing, at least. That made Marcellus feel a little warmer. “But they can’t be left unanswered any longer. I’m sorry, sir.” The crowd around them began to murmur, began to shuffle between Marcellus and the enforcers.
“No! No!” They broke out, angrily, forcefully. The enforcers scrunched backwards, fearful, eyes wide. Marcellus saw, and they knew, that their lives were in his hand. It was the strangest thing. To rely on a person’s goodness to force him to his deathbed. The reason why these men of his had issued his arrest order, was because they knew he would not have them killed. Strange, then, that they’d want to arrest him in the first place. But then no one else cared if law and morality were divorced. The law was just one more weapon to the lawless. Marcellus had known this before as well.
“What is the Senate?” A marshal cried. “Who are they?”
“Old fools! Corrupt bureaucrats! Paid puppets!”
“What right? What right? What right to touch Marcellus?” The men’s cries became more impassioned, lifting each other higher with each cry impelling the next.
“Enough!” Marcellus shouted, in his strongest voice, silencing the whole crowd. “The Senate is the Republic, and the Republic is Illyria. And I, for one, am an Illyrian.” Then he stood up, but people would not let him pass.
“NO! NO!” They shouted back at him. “You are Illyria! You! You!”
“Let us march back to the Senate! All of us! Let us all come with you, and we can put them on trial!”
“Sunhand! Sunhand! Imperator! Father of Illyria!” Marcellus winced inwardly at their every word. If there had been any chance of escaping the charge of treason before, it was now impossibly lost. He could already feel the nails pinning him to the crucifix. If that were his fate, better to fall upon his sword now. The death of honor, and painless in comparison. He felt the sword on his side, felt aware of its existence in a new and serious way. He could feel every nuance of its pull against his side, how its grip felt against the palm of his hand. Should he draw now? They might stop him if he tried. Should he try, and be stopped, and thus hope for a reprieve? Cowardly, to draw a sword and not blood it. Craven, to lie about such a thing. The blood seemed to rush through him like thunder. They kept talking, and they were killing him. It was the strangest sensation he’d felt in all his memory, that those trying to kill him were hoping he would live, and those hoping he’d live were killing him. It made him want to laugh. But that was the first step to madness. No, he could not leave things this way. First to calm his men. If he killed himself now, they might march on Scamander all the same in the name of vengeance. Besides, he could not die letting people think of him as Emperor. He had to live just a little longer.
“Dear Goddess, forgive these men their words!” Marcellus broke through their cries. “If you will not protect the Republic, then who is left? What will become of us, a land of slaves? Did I stop the Centaurs only so that we might butcher ourselves? Is that what we fought for?”
The legions quieted, chagrined. They could not look their Consul in the eye.
“I live for Illyria! We all swore our lives to Her! And you wish to march upon it? Only the demons could twist love and duty so far as that! If to live for the Goddess, I must die for her people, what of it? Is death so evil as that? I am old, two of my children are dead, must I continue living forever? Is there no rest for me? No end to the slaughters? No end to the marches? Must I now spend the last year of my life making a mockery of all the years before? Should I prefer my throat to the throat of freedom? To the throats of millions lost in war? Shall it be my hand, that establishes the right of might? That tramples down the Goddess for the sake of preempting her glory? Shall I rule over ash and ruin, and the end to all things? Shall I blot out all the starry heavens, and claim darkness for my throne? There is only one life, the true life, lived for Her! For Her alone we live, for Her alone we die!”
The men looked at Marcellus, not understanding, not wishing to understand. It was always that way. They would never understand. They never would. It would go on and on, and they’d never understand. Not if he told them a thousand times for a thousand years. It would have as much meaning as the passing stream. So he quit. He gave up, and gathered up his cloak. They didn’t have to understand anyway. All they had to do was let him go. All they had to do was leave him be for just a short while. He would never go back with those men, but he still felt duty-bound to see them safe. If he died now, they would be torn apart as his killers. Best if he went with them for at least the first day. Marcellus felt the sword at his waist dragging with ever-greater weight. How long would duty keep his breath? He felt like a drowning man clutching at straws. A day left to live, and then? The abyss loomed before him, and he wondered desperately what a person should do with a day left to live.
He wondered if anything he did that day would make any difference.
And then he wondered if anything he ever did made any difference at all. Sooner or later, his bloodline would run out. There was only Marcus, now. . .and sickly Joseph, if that counted. Then all those who knew of him would die. Then all the stories would die out as well. Sooner or later they would all forget. Then, even then, enough time would pass as to make the minor impact he had on the world superfluous, with enough other people doing enough other things to mean he might as well have never lived. Like Sertorius said. . .great wars, wars beyond wars, and not a single difference in the end. . .
If his whole life had achieved nothing. . .what could he hope for in a day? The abyss yawned greater, devouring whole chunks of his life with rapid speed. There went his lineage. He felt it like a blow. His memory. His people. His homeland. There it was falling, piece by piece, into that blackness. He could feel himself falling away into it tear by ragged tear. Like a wolf devouring a still-living deer, having never bothered to take out its throat. He could feel each bite, but was helpless to stop them. It was terrifying. He was dying, and he was killing himself, but he couldn’t stop it. The dread weight of the sword and the implacable logic of his mind were stronger than any enemy he’d ever faced before.
“What, then, of it all?” He whispered. “What of it? What was it all for?”
“Sir?” The attendant asked, as they rode out of the Legion, praying with all their hearts that their comrades wouldn’t butcher them.
Marcellus shook his head, murmuring. “What for? What for?” He tried to summon up times of joy, but they tasted bitter, horribly sour, with the mockery of the abyss. What was your happiness for, Marcellus? What does it matter to me? Summon all your memories if you like, you know they don’t matter to me, they never can, and they never will. Every memory you summon I only eat the sooner.
Marcellus thought feverishly of ways around the abyss. It wasn’t even death. It was something more insidious, greater than death, it was everywhere and in everything, not just the end. Death could not steal away the meaning of life. But now that he thought to find that meaning, to ascribe it to himself, all he found was this abyss. This was the only true answer. He thought of the demons, greed and hatred and fear and despair and jealousy and decadence, and they seemed such pathetic enemies, such pathetic evils. Here had been evil all along. Here was the true evil, not perversion from good, but negation of it. The true evil was the abyss that devoured the idea of good. And after all his life striving to live right. . .he had never thought until now that there was no right way to live.
For some reason, people who loved him were leading him to torture and death, after he had given his life to the very Republic that would kill him for treason. The abyss laughed and laughed. What for? Where is the story in this? Where is the meaning in this? Where is the value in any of this? In anything at all?
He wished Lydra were there. She would know.
Then Marcellus smiled, because he knew too. Everyone knew, if they stopped thinking about it.
The men set to guard his tent thought nothing of it at the time. Marcellus had been acting strangely, and his last words seemed only to be more of the same. He had been under a lot of pressure, they thought. He would recover. As all healthy people do, they ignored sickness as best they could.
But when they opened the tent flap, to find him skewered on his own sword, the blood long since dried, the body long since cold, they couldn’t help but think of them, with that reverence given to the last words of every man. “Don’t you see? You don’t have to find her, because she’s already in us.” And for some reason he had been smiling, when he was known only by his frown. He had smiled, and then killed himself. There hadn’t been a trial, or a thought of defense. He hadn’t even waited until they reached Scamander. He could’ve lived at least ten more days. They searched for a letter, but there was none. He hadn’t even tried to defend himself. The sword through his gut he counted proof enough. It made them want to cry, because they had always known he was innocent. But they didn’t cry, because they were legionnaires. Instead they decided to bring him home, though they had to march all the way into Mania.
A year later, the Senate awarded Marcellus a triumph for his defeat of the Centaurs, and a full acquittal of all charges raised against him. His family was allowed to live in peace.
Every now and then they would remember his words, and wonder.
The labor had been horribly painful, on a body too young. Her screams had filled the entire household, but they seemed infinitely preferable to the soft whimpers of terror and pain that followed them. People started praying for it to end, without any thought as to how. Just so that it would end and they wouldn’t have to hear her anymore.
And, miraculously, it did end. “A boy!” The midwife cried, quickly poking and prodding the baby with expert care. The baby screamed itself hoarse in protest.
“What’s wrong?” Mirian cried, distressed. Her baby was crying. Her son was screaming and something must be wrong. She must have done something wrong. The thought made her sick with fatigue.
“Nothing, dear! He’s supposed to scream.” The midwife smiled, cleaning the baby away.
“Give him to me.” She begged. “Can’t you see he’s scared?” The midwife smiled again, with confident reassurance, and handed him over. The baby found her breast, and perhaps that was soothing, because it quickly grew silent and started sucking. But Mirian thought it was the sound of her heartbeat. The heartbeat he had lived with all his life. All she could think was how perfect he was.
“But what is his name?” Many people had wondered about the baby. She had bought her freedom the same time, and the household as well. Someone very rich, perhaps. Who had enough conscience to provide for his child if not for her. To at least pay for her services, before abandoning her. They wondered why talk of ‘him’ only made her smile, that glowing smile, that attracted so many people to her. That was why the people she’d employed felt adopted. Because for some reason she wasn’t ashamed at all but proud, and for some reason they believed her over reality itself, and were proud for her as well. But she had never told them, and all they had wanted was to know.
“Martin.” Mirian smiled again. “Martin Sunhand.” Then she brushed his cheek.