Либрусек (книги fb2)
New York Times bestseller Robin Hobb is one of the most popular writers in fantasy today, having sold more than one million copies of her work in paperback. She’s perhaps best known for her epic fantasy Farseer series, including Assassins Apprentice, Royal Assassin, and Assassins Quest, as well as the two fantasy series related to it, the Liveship Traders series, consisting of Ship of Magic, The Mad Ship, and Ship of Destiny, and the Tawny Man series, made up of Fool’s Errand, Golden Fool, and Fool’s Fate. Recently, she’s started a new fantasy series, the Soldier Son series, composed of Shaman’s Crossing, Forest Mage, and her most recently published novel, Renegade’s Magic. Her early novels, published under the name Megan Lindholm, include the fantasy novels Wizard of the Pigeons, Harpy’s Flight, The Windsingers, The Limbreth Gate, Luck of the Wheels, The Reindeer People, Wolf’s Brother, and Cloven Hooves, the science fiction novel Alien Earth, and, with Steven Brust, the collaborative novel The Gypsy.
Here she takes us to the edge of human endurance and considerably beyond, for a harrowing study of the ultimate meaning of loyalty, when everything else has been lost.
Robin Hobb The Triumph
The evening winds swept across the plains to the city and pushed on the iron-barred cage hung in the arch of the gate. The man in the cage braced himself against the bite of the inward-facing spikes and stared into the westering sun. He had small choice in that. Before they’d hoisted his cage into position, they’d cut away his eyelids and lashed his wrists to the bars, so that he could not turn away from the fiery gaze of the Carthaginian sun.
The dust-laden wind was drying his bared eyes, and his vision was dwindling. Tears, the tears of his body rather than the tears of his heart, ran unchecked down his cheeks. The severed muscles that had once worked his eyelids twitched in helpless reflex; they could not moisten his eyeballs and renew his vision. Just as well; there was little out there he wished to see.
Earlier in the day there had been a crowd below him. They’d lined the street to watch the laughing, mocking soldiers roll him along inside the spiked barrel of his cage. Despite the earlier torture he had endured, he’d still had a bit of defiance in him then. He’d seized the bars of the cage and braced himself, fighting the momentum of the bumping, bouncing cage as they tumbled him along. He hadn’t been completely successful. The spikes inside the cage were too long for that. They’d scored his body in a dozen places. Still, he’d avoided any immediately mortal wounds. He now doubted the wisdom of that.
At the bottom of the hill, beneath the arch of the city gates, the crowd had roared with avid approval when his guards dragged him out and sliced the eyelids from his face. “Face the sunset, Regulus! It’s the last one you’ll see, dog of a Roman! You’ll die with the sun today!” Then they’d forced him back into his spiked prison, lashing his wrists to the bars before they hoisted him up high so that all might have a good view of the Roman consul’s slow death.
His torment had drawn a sizable crowd. The Carthaginians hated him, and with good reason. Very good reason. They’d never forgive him for the many defeats he’d dealt them, or forget the impossible treaty terms he’d offered them after the battle at Adys. He bared what remained of his broken teeth in a grin. He still had that to be proud of. His gallery had pelted his cage with rocks and rotten vegetables and offal. Some of the missiles had ricocheted off the iron bars that confined him, a shield wall that flung their insults back into their upturned faces. Others had found their mark. Well, that was to be expected. No defense was completely impenetrable. Even the Carthaginians could hit a target sometimes. He had tucked his chin to his chest to offer his eyes what shelter he could from the dazzling African sun and looked down at the crowd. They’d been both exultant and furious. They had him caged, Marcus Atillius Regulus, and their torturers had wreaked on him all that for so long they had desired to do, but feared. His final defiance of them had pressured them to do their worst. And now they would watch him die in a cage hung from the city gates of Carthage.
His cracked lips pulled wide in a smile as he looked down at the hazy crowd. A film obscured his vision, but it seemed to him that there were not so many of them as there had been. Watching a man die painfully offered an hour or two of amusement to vary their tepid lives, but Regulus had prolonged their voyeurism too long, and they had wearied of it. Most had returned to the routine tasks of their ordinary lives. He gripped the bars firmly, and with all his will he bade his fingers to hold fast and his trembling legs braced him upright. It would be his last victory, to deny them any spectacle at his passing. He willed himself to take another breath.
* * * *
Flavius looked up at the man in the cage. He swallowed. Marcus appeared to be looking straight at him. He resisted the temptation to look aside and tried to meet his old friend’s gaze. Either Marcus could not see Flavius or knew that if he recognized him and reacted to him in anyway, his old friend would pay with his life. Or perhaps more than four years of slavery in Carthage had changed Flavius so much that even his childhood friend could not recognize him. He had never been a fleshy man, and the hardships of slavery had leaned even his soldier’s muscles from his frame. He was a bone man now, skeletal and ravaged by the harsh African sun. He was ragged and he stank, not just his unwashed body but also the dirty sodden bandage that wrapped the still-oozing injury on his left thigh.
He’d “escaped” from his master a scant month ago; it had not required much subterfuge. The overseer was a sot, more intent on drinking each day than on wringing work out of slaves that were no longer capable of real labor. One night, as the slaves made their weary way in from the grain fields, Flavius had lagged behind. He had limped more and more slowly and finally, while the overseer was haranguing another slave, he had dropped down amongst the rustling stalks and lain still. The grain was tall enough to conceal his supine body; they would not locate him without a search, and even so, in the failing light, they might miss him. But the old sot had not seemed to notice even that he was one slave short. When the moonless night had deepened, Flavius had crawled to the far edge of the field and then tottered to his feet and limped away. The old injury to his leg had already been suppurating. He had known then that the broken dragon tooth inside it had begun to move again. The pain had awakened memories of how he’d taken the injury, and made him think of Marcus and wonder about his friend’s fate.
How long had it been since he’d last seen him? Time slipped around when a man was a slave. Days seemed longer when someone else owned every minute of your time. A summer of forced labor in Carthage could seem a lifetime with the sun beating down on a man’s head and back. He counted the harvests he could recall and then decided that it had been over four years since he’d seen Marcus. Over four years since that disastrous battle where everything went wrong. On the plains of the Bagradas, not far from the cursed river of the same name, Consul Marcus Atillius Regulus had gone down in defeat. Flavius had been one of the five hundred soldiers taken prisoner. Some of those who had survived had pointed out that being captured alive was one step above being one of the twelve thousand Roman dead who littered the bloody battlefield. On the longest days of his slavery, Flavius had doubted that.
His eyes were drawn again to his friend and commander. The spikes had pierced him in a dozen places, but blood no longer trickled from the injuries. The dust-laden summer wind had crusted them over. His chest and belly looked like a map of a river system where the red trickles had dried to brown. Stripped of armor and garments, naked as a slave, Marcus’ body still showed the musculature and bearing of a Roman soldier. They had tortured him and hung him up to die, but they still hadn’t managed to break him. The Carthaginians never would.
After all, it had not been the Carthaginians who managed to defeat Consul Regulus, but a hired general, one Xanthippus, a Spartan, a man who led his troops not out of love for his country but for cold coin. The Carthaginians had hired him when their own Hamilcar had been unable to deliver the victories they needed. If Marcus had been fully cognizant of what that change in command would mean, perhaps he would not have pressed his men so hard toward their last encounter. That fateful day, the sun had beat down on them as fiercely as if it were a Carthaginian ally. Dust and heat had tormented the troops as Marcus had marched his forces round a lake. Toward evening, the weary soldiers approached the river Bagradas. On the other side, their enemy awaited them. Everyone had expected that their leader would order them to strike a camp, to fortify it with a wall and a ditch. They’d counted on a meal and a night of rest before they engaged in battle. But Marcus had promptly ordered his forces to cross the river and confront the waiting army, thinking to confound the Carthaginian force with his bravado.
Had Hamilcar been the Carthaginian general, the tactic might have worked. Everyone knew that Carthaginians avoided fighting in the open, for they dared not stand against the organized might of a Roman army. But Xanthippus was a Spartan and not to be taken in by show. Nor did he allow his men to fight like Carthaginians. Marcus had drawn his force confidently into their standard formation, infantry in the middle and their cavalry flanking them on both sides, and moved boldly forward. But Xanthippus had not drawn back. Instead, he sent his elephants crashing squarely into the middle of the infantry formation. Even so, the beleaguered square of infantry had held. Flavius had been there. They had fought like Romans, and the lines had held. But then Xanthippus had split his cavalry, a tactic that Flavius had never seen in such a situation. When the horses thundered down on them from both sides, their own outnumbered cavalry had gone down, and then the flanks of the infantry formation had caved in and given way. It had been chaos and bloody slaughter the like of which he’d never seen. Some men, he had heard, had escaped, to flee to Aspis and be rescued later by the Roman fleet. Those soldiers had gone home. Flavius and close to five hundred others had not.
Consul Marcus Atillius Regulus had been a prized captive and a valuable hostage and was treated as such. But Flavius had been only a soldier, and not even one from a wealthy family. His body and the work he could do had been his only worth to the victors. As a spoil of war, he’d been sold for labor. He’d taken a blow to the head in the course of the defeat; he’d never know if it had been from a horse’s hoof or a random slingstone. But for a time, he’d seen rings around torches at night and staggered to the left whenever he tried to walk. He’d been sold cheap, and his new master put him to work in his grain fields. And there he had toiled for the last four years. Some seasons he plowed and some he planted, and in the heat of the summer as the grain began to ripen, he’d moved through the field, shouting and flapping his arms to keep the greedy birds at bay. Rome and his soldiering days, his wife and his children, and even Marcus, the boyhood friend who had gotten him into this situation, all had begun to fade from his thoughts. Sometimes he’d felt that he had been a slave always.
And then one night he’d awakened to a familiar pain, and known that the dragon’s tooth was once more moving inside his flesh. And within a handful of days, he’d limped away from his overseer.
Had the shifting tooth in the old wound been an omen, a warning from the gods of what was to come? Flavius had given small thought to such things in recent years. The gods of his youth had forsaken him; why should he care any longer to give them honor or even regard? Yet it seemed to him now that the tooth’s stirring on the final leg of its journey through his flesh might have come close to the time when Marcus was making his final appearance before the Chief Magistrates of Rome. In the days that followed, the old wound had swollen, turned scarlet, and then began to crust and ooze. And on those same days, he heard the gossip that even Carthaginian slaves would repeat. “The war will soon be over. They paroled the Consul to Rome, to present their treaty terms for them. Consul Regulus is to meet with the Roman magistrates and convince them that it’s useless to defy us. He gave his word that if Rome did not accept the terms, he’d return to Carthage.”
Flavius had shaken his head and turned wordlessly away from their rumors. Marcus had gone home without him? Marcus had gone home, abandoning the five hundred men who had once served him? Marcus would present Carthaginian terms of surrender to Rome and urge them to accept them? That did not seem like Marcus. For three days, he had mulled it over as he limped through a grain field, flapping his arms at black birds. Then he had decided that the moving tooth inside his flesh was a message. That very day, he had made his escape and begun his slow journey back toward the city of Carthage.
It was a long and weary way for a man half-crippled, without a coin or a purse to put it in. He’d traveled by night, stealing what he could from fields and outlying farmsteads. He avoided speaking to anyone, for although he had learned Punic during his servitude, his Roman accent was strong and would betray him. As the miles between him and his former owner had increased, he’d become a bit more bold. He’d stolen worn garments from a ragpicker’s cart that were much more serviceable than the twist of cloth his owner had given him. He’d begged, too, sitting at a village gate and showing his oozing wound and bony body, and a few fools had taken pity on him. And so he had made his slow way, step by step, toward Carthage.
Two nights ago, he had camped in sight of the city walls. As evening fell, he’d found a place to sleep in the dubious shelter of a leafless grove of trees. In the night, he’d wakened to the fever of his wound. In the feeble light of a full moon, he had mustered his courage, set his teeth, and bore down on the swollen tissue. He’d gripped his thigh’s hot flesh in both hands and squeezed, pushing up and away from the bone. The dragon’s tooth had emerged slickly, jabbing its way out of his body just as bloodily as it had gone in. It had passed through his entire leg, from back to front. He’d pulled it from his flesh, his wet fingers slipping on the gleaming white tooth’s smooth surface. When he’d finally tugged it from its hiding place, a gush of foul liquid and pus had followed it. And for the first time in over six years, he finally felt alone in his body, freed of the dragons tooth and its presence in his life. For a short time, he had held the tooth in his hands, sick with marvel at how long he had carried it. It was sharper than any arrow, and longer than his forefinger. The snapped-off stump where it had broken from the monster’s jaw was still sharp-edged. He clutched it in his hand and slept well that night, despite hunger and a bed that was no more than dirt and tree roots.
The next morning, he had risen, bound his old injury afresh, and limped off in search of Marcus. Midway through his first day of walking, he found a likely stick along the roadside and made it his staff. At dusk that day, he came to a sluggish flow of water in a sunken stream. He’d followed it upstream, into a farmer’s field, and found a quiet place to bathe his wound and wash out his scant clothing and his bandaging. He’d stolen handfuls of underripe grain from the field, filling his belly with the milky, chewy kernels. When he lay down that night to sleep, he’d dreamed of home, but not of his wife and his sons. No. He’d dreamed of a time before them.
His father’s small acreage had been adjacent to that of Marcus’ family. Neither parent was a wealthy man, but while Flavius’ father was a farmer who had been to war, Marcus’ father had risen to the rank of Consul and never forgotten it. His family holding had been twelve acres, while Marcus’ father could claim only a scanty seven, yet when Marcus was recounting his father’s heroism, Flavius had always felt he was the poorer of the two boys. He smiled bitterly to himself. When Marcus’ father had died, Marcus had been devastated, not just by the man’s death but also by the thought that his days as a warrior were finished. Marcus had gone to the Roman Senate and reluctantly requested to be freed from his military duty, so that he might return home to till his seven acres and support his wife and children and mother, for with his father gone, there was no one else to shoulder that task. Yet even in that early flush of his career, the Senate had recognized his military worth. They’d taken from taxes the funds to hire a man to till the lands of Marcus Atillius Regulus and sent him forth yet again to serve Rome where he functioned best, at the bloody forefront of the war.
Marcus had gone joyfully. Flavius had shaken his head over it then even as he did now. War and its glory were all Marcus had ever wanted. When they were boys, in the green of their youth, they had both dreamed of escaping their chores for the adventure of soldiering. They’d counted down the musterings until they reached an age when they, too, could stand with the other eligible men in the town square and await a chance to be chosen to serve. They’d both been seventeen years tall and of a like height at that first dilectus, and it had been Marcus who had contrived that they must find a way to stand four men apart. “For we shall be called forward four at a time, for the tribunes to have the pick of us. If we go up together, one will choose me and another you, and then we shall certainly be separated. So, see that you come up after me, for if I can at all, I shall whisper to the tribune that chooses me that although you may not have the muscle I show, there is no one like to you for an arrow well shot or a spear flung straight. I’ll see that so long as we march to war, we always march together. That I promise you.”
“And what of our marching home? Do you promise we shall always be together then?”
Marcus had stared at him, affronted. “Of course we shall! In triumph!”
Small matter to Marcus that, if Flavius had had his way after his first stint of soldiering, he might have stayed at home, well away from the gore and boredom of a soldier’s life. But of course, he had no choice; no son of a Roman citizen did. And so at that first muster he stood, knees slightly bent to blend in with three shorter youths, and watched Marcus being chosen. He saw his frantic whispering and pointing, and he saw the stony-faced tribune who waved an angry hand at him to silence him. But when the time came for the tribune to choose from the four men offered him, he had chosen Flavius. And thus the two boyhood friends had marched off together for their first foray into a soldier’s life.
Marcus thrived on a military life. As Marcus’ talent for strategy had blossomed, he had risen in rank. Although Marcus was his commander on the battlefield each year, when they returned home, they resumed being friends and neighbors. As the years had passed, and especially after the dragon had damn near taken his leg off, Flavius had answered the muster more reluctantly each year. He had begun to hope that the tribunes would see that the injury to his leg had made him an old man before his time. But every year when he presented himself for the dilectus, Marcus contrived that Flavius was chosen to serve in his legion. And at the end of each campaign, when they returned home together, always they slipped comfortably back into their old friendship.
Had Marcus ever wanted to be anything but a soldier? Even now, as Flavius looked up at him in his cage, he doubted it. When they were boys, after their chores, Marcus had always wanted to be fighting with staves or staging ambushes on the neighbor’s goats. Flavius had preferred the hunt to a battle, and on the evenings when he persuaded Marcus to follow him on his quests, his friend had been unstinting in his amazement and praise of Flavius’ skills. He excelled at stealth and marksmanship. Flavius well remembered the sweetness of the long evenings of late summer, when the two boys had lounged by a small fire, savoring the smell of plundered apples baking by the embers and a small game bird sizzling over the last of the flames. Flavius’ thoughts would wander to whether he might persuade his father to let him range farther in search of larger game, but for Marcus, the dream was always the same.
“I know my destiny,” he had confided to Flavius, more than once. “I’ve seen it in my dreams. I shall rise through the ranks, to be a praetor or a consul, just as my father did before me. And then I shall lead my troops forth into war.”
“To kill a thousand of the enemy?” Flavius would ask, grinning.
“A thousand? No! Five thousand, ten thousand will fall to my strategy. And I shall be summoned back to Rome and awarded a Triumph. I shall be paraded through the streets, with wagons full of my plunder, and my captives walking barefoot behind me. My army will follow me, of course, and you, Flavius, you I promise will be in the first rank. My wife and my grown sons will be honored with me. And I, I shall be stained as red as this apple, and my toga whiter than snow. At Jupiter’s temple, I will sacrifice six white bulls to him. All of Rome will line the streets to cheer me. This I know, Flavius. I’ve seen it.”
He’d smiled at his friend’s posturing. “Don’t forget the best part of it, Marcus. There will be a slave in the chariot with you, standing just back of your shoulder and leaning forward to whisper into your ear the words that remind you that every hero is mortal. And thus you will be kept humble.” He grinned. “Perhaps, instead of a slave, they will let me do that!”
“Mortal? The body perhaps is mortal, Flavius. But once a man has had a Triumph, once he is an imperator, then his legend is immortal and will be passed on through all the generations of soldiers that will ever spill blood on the earth.”
One of the stolen apples had popped on the fire, spitting out a tiny missile of pulp and then draining a sweet stream of hot juice into the embers. Flavius had speared it with the small stick he was using to tend their meal and drawn it back from the fire’s edge. He held it up gravely on its skewer. “Memento mori!” he had toasted it gravely, and then blown on it before scalding his mouth with an incautious bite of it.
* * * *
Regulus tried to decide if the evening was as chill as it seemed. The day had been hot enough to bake him. But now, as the sunlight that jabbed through his hazed vision turned the world to a bloody red, he felt chilled.
His eyeballs were too dried to see clearly, but he could still perceive that the light was fading. So the cooler evening was finally coming. Or death. Blindness would make the light fade, and blood loss could make a man cold. He well knew that. He’d lost count of the times when he’d lent his cloak to wrap a dying man. Flavius, he suddenly thought. He’d knelt by Flavius and tucked his cloak around him as he shivered. But Flavius hadn’t died, had he? Had he? No, not then. Not then, but now? Was Flavius alive now? Or had he left him dead on that last battlefield?
Men always complained of the cold when they were dying, if they had breath left to speak. The cold and the enveloping darkness troubled them, or they expressed regrets in a muttered word or a sigh as he knelt beside the fallen man. As if the cold or the dark were what a man should worry about when his entrails were spilled in the dust next to him, or half his body’s blood was congealing in a pool beneath him. Still, it was a small comfort to offer, the lending of a cloak for the usually brief time it took a man to bleed out from a battle wound. A small comfort he would have welcomed just now. The touch of one friendly hand, one word from a friend to send him on his way. But he was alone.
No one would come to wrap him in a cloak, or to take his hand, or even to speak his name. No one would crouch down beside him and say, “Regulus, you died well. You were a fine consul, a loyal centurion, and a good citizen. Rome will remember you. You died a hero’s death.” No. His parched tongue tried to wet his cracked lips. Another stupid reflex of the body. Tongue, lips, teeth. Silly, useless words now. None of them applied to him. As stupid as his mind, going on thinking, thinking, thinking while his body spiraled down into death.
Something landed on the top of his suspended cage. A bird, it would have to be a bird up here. Not a serpent, not a dragon. It was not heavy, he didn’t think, but it was enough to make the cage rock a tiny bit.
And enough to make the spikes bite just that much deeper. He held his breath and waited. Soon, they’d reach something vital, and he would die. But not just yet. No. Not just yet. He tightened his grip on the bars of his cage, or tried to. They’d shackled his hands higher than his heart, and they were numb now. It made no sense to cling to life when his body was already ruined. They’d broken so many parts of him that he could no longer catalog them. He did remember the moment when he suddenly knew that they weren’t going to stop. He’d known that before they began, of course. They’d promised him that. The Carthaginians had sent him forth, bound doubly by his word and their promise. They’d made him promise to return. In turn, the Carthaginians had promised that if he did not convince the Roman magistrates to accept the terms of the treaty, they would kill him on his return.
He recalled standing among slaves as the Carthaginian envoys presented their terms. He had not shouted out that he was a Roman citizen, had not announced that he was Consul Marcus Attillius Regulus. No. He was ashamed to return to Rome in such a way and he had no intention of being a tool for the Carthaginians. They had had to bring him forward and announce him to the Magistrates themselves. And then he had done the only thing he could do. He denounced the treaty and its harsh terms, and advised the Magistrates to refuse it.
And they had.
And then he had kept his honor by keeping his word to his captors. He returned to Carthage with them.
So, he’d known all along that the Carthaginians would kill him. Known with his mind. But that was different from knowing with his body. His body hadn’t known. His body had believed that somehow, he’d be able to go on living. If his body hadn’t believed that, his torturers would not have been able to wring scream after scream from him.
He’d tried not to scream, of course. All men tried, at first, not to scream under torture. But sooner or later, they all did. And sooner or later, they all stopped even pretending to try not to scream. He could command one hundred men and they’d obeyed him in his days as a centurion, and as a general and as a consul he could command thousands. When he had told the Magistrates that they should refuse the terms of the treaty, they had listened. But when he had commanded his own body not to scream, it hadn’t listened to him. It had screamed and screamed, as if somehow that would mitigate the pain. It didn’t. And then, at some crucial point, when they had broken so many parts of him that he could no longer keep count, when really, no part of him was left whole, even his body had known that he was going to die. And then it had stopped screaming.
A very long time after that, or perhaps only a short time that seemed like a long time, they’d stopped actively torturing him. Was it hours or days ago that they’d rolled him down to the city gates inside his spiked cage? Did it matter?
He listened to the sounds of the city below him. Earlier, there had been crowd noises. Exclamations, shouts of disgust and ridicule, mocking laughter and the stupid shouts of triumph from men who had never fought, never even tortured, but somehow thought they could claim his death as their victory. By virtue of what? he’d wanted to ask them. That you were whelped on a piece of dirt somewhere near the place where my torturer was born? Does that make seeing me dangle in a cage over your city gate a victory for you? You have no victory here. I told the Magistrates to refuse the treaty. Rome will not go down on its knees before you. I saw to that. If I could not give my country the victory it deserved, at least I have preserved it from accepting a defeat.
He hadn’t said any such words to his gallery, of course. His mouth, tongue, and teeth were no longer useful for talking. He’d almost wished, at one point, that his torturers were pretending to wring information from him. If that had been their pretense, they’d have left him a mouth to babble with when they’d hurt him badly enough. But they’d been freed from any need to pretend they were doing anything other than hurting him as much as they could without killing him. And so they had done their worst, or perhaps they thought of it as their best. Torturers, he knew from employing them, were not interested in information or confessions. They weren’t even interested in reforming the wicked or making them sorry for their misdeeds. Torturers were interested in hurting people. That was all. He’d seen how it aroused them, how their eyes glittered and their mouths grew wet. It was in how lovingly they handled their tools and the great thought they gave to how they applied them. Torture, he thought, was sex for the sexless. Not a one of them ever worked for anything except his own joy in hurting. They were not warriors, not soldiers; perhaps they were not men at all. They were torturers. Consumers of pain, and they’d fed off his screams, just as the carrion birds waited to consume his flesh. The torturers were tools, servants of the ones who commanded them. And in his case, the men who had commanded the torturers were simply keeping a promise to him.
His thoughts were jumping around like fleas evacuating the carcass of a dead animal. The mental image pleased him for a moment, and then it vanished from his mind. He cast his thoughts wider, tried to find an image or an idea to cling to, anything that would distract him from the slow pain of dying. There was his wife to think of, Julia. She would mourn and miss him. How many soldiers could say that of women left behind and know that it was true? And his sons, Marcus and Gaius. They would hear of their father’s death, and it would stiffen their resolution to defend Rome. They’d realize more clearly just what evil dogs these Carthaginians were. They would not feel shamed that he had been defeated and captured. They would take pride in how he had not scrabbled for a chance at life by betraying his country. No. He’d defied Carthage. If he could not leave his boys a Triumph to remember him by, at least he would leave them his honorable death as a loyal Roman.
They’d hear how he died. He had no doubt of that. The Senate would noise it about. It would put some fire in their bellies, to think of Marcus Atillius Regulus, once a proud consul of the Roman legions, tormented and hung up to die like fresh meat hung to bleed in a butcher’s stall. The Senate would make certain that everyone heard of how he died.
It would be the last use they’d make of him. He knew that and didn’t resent it. But gods, gods, how much longer must it take him to die?
* * * *
Flavius realized that he had been standing and staring too long. The stream of people moving into the city had parted to go around him. Earlier, he was sure, there had been a standing audience for Marcus’ last moments. But the stubborn soldier had defeated those gawkers. He’d refused to die for them.
Flavius crossed the street to a merchant hawking slabs of flat bread. It smelled wonderful. He had a few coins from a purse he’d cut last week. At one time, he would have been shamed to resort to common thievery, but he had learned to justify it to himself. Even if he no longer wore the armor of a Roman soldier, soldier he was, and every Carthaginian remained his enemy. Stealing from them, even killing one if the opportunity were offered, was no different from hunting any other sort of prey. It had been a good pouch he’d cut, a leather one with woven throngs, and inside it was half a dozen coins, a small knife, a man’s ring, and a slab of wax. He took out his smallest coin and held it up for the bread merchant to see, scowling darkly all the while. The merchant shook his head disdainfully. Flavius let his scowl darken as he brought another small coin from the twisted rag at his hip and offered it as well. The merchant muttered, “You will beggar me!” but picked up one of his smaller loaves and offered it. Flavius handed over the two bits of metal and took the bread without thanks. Today he would take no chance of his accent betraying him.
He broke the bread into small pieces and ate it dry, casting furtive glances up at Marcus as he did so. It felt traitorous to eat while his friend was dying, but he was hungry, and the activity gave him an excuse to loiter where he was. Marcus held steady. He gripped the bars of his cage and stared down at the passing folk. Some still looked up at him as they passed, but others scarcely noticed the dying man in the cage. Perhaps it was because he did not look as if he were dying. Yet Flavius looked up at him and knew. His boyhood friend was past saving. Even if a Roman legion had miraculously appeared to rescue him, Marcus would still die. There was a dusky color to his hands and feet that spoke of blood settling. The attentions of the torturers had left streaks of blood that had dried as brown stripes on his face and his chest and thighs. Yet Marcus stood and waited and Flavius stood and watched and waited, even though he could not say why.
It seemed only fitting. After all, Marcus had once kept a death watch for him.
It had been years ago. Six years? Seven? And it had not been that far from this dusty, evil city. They had been trying to cross the Bagradas River at a place where it ran through thick brush and verdant reeds that grew higher than a man’s head. The Bagradas Valley was a rich and fertile swath of ground that received the waters from the Tells on either side of it. On the flanks of the Tells, cork and oak and pine forests grew. The banks of the wide river were thick with both vegetation and stinging insects. Marcus had been a general then, but not yet risen to the rank of consul. That title he would earn by cutting a swath of destruction across Carthage. It had been a summer of conquest for him. That day, Marcus pushed infantry, horse, and archers to move swiftly as he sought for the best place to ford the Bagradas. He had chosen a prime spot for his evening camp, on a rise that overlooked a river. The troops settled in to create the standard fortification, a ditch and a wall made from the upflung dirt. Marcus had sent his scouts ahead to survey the fording place. They had returned too soon, to report unusual activity by the water’s edge.
“We saw a snake, sir. A huge snake. By the river.”
Flavius had been in earshot of that first report. Sometimes of an evening, after the boundaries were set for the night, he’d go by Marcus’ tent. If the general was not too busy, he’d find time for some talk with his old friend. But that evening, as he approached, he was blocked by a huddle of men clustered around the tent. Marcus stood scowling, while the two velites reporting to him looked at the ground and shifted sheepishly. Flavius had seen Marcus’ consternation that they had even dared to return to report such a thing. “Amazing,” he had responded, his voice dripping sarcasm. “That we should encounter a snake on an African riverbank. Is that why you fled back here before determining if we can ford there tomorrow?”
The velites had exchanged glances. They were among the poorest of the soldiers that were recruited, often without enough money to equip themselves well and accorded little status by their fellows. In battle, they were skirmishers and javelin throwers, not recognized as formally belonging to any group. They had been sent to scout precisely because they were expendable. They knew it and did not like it. Flavius could scarcely blame them for retreating from whatever they had seen. They had to watch out for their own backs. One of the men was wet to the waist. The other man spoke. “We couldn’t see all of it, sir. But what we saw was, well, immense. We saw a piece of its side moving past us through the tall river grass. It was the diameter of a hogshead, sir, and that was close to the end of it. We aren’t cowards. We went toward it, for a better look. And then, close to a hundred feet away, this head reared up from the reeds.”
“Glowing eyes!” broke in the other scout. “On my word, sir, big glowing eyes. And it hissed at us, but the hiss was more like whistling. I had to cover my ears. It kept to the water, and the reeds hid most of it from us, but what we could see was immense. From the size of its eyes and head, it had to be—”
“That’s twice now that you’ve admitted coming back to report to me on something that you haven’t completely seen,” Marcus had observed coldly. “It is the function of a scout, is it not, to see things and then come back to report? Rather than to come back to report what he has not seen?”
The first man scowled and looked at his feet. The second scout flushed a deep red. He didn’t meet Marcus’s gaze, but there was no shame in his voice as he said, “Some things are so strange that even a glimpse of one should be reported. That is no ordinary snake, sir. And I’m not just speaking of its size, though it dwarfs any other snake I’ve ever seen. Its eyes glowed when it looked at us. And it more whistled than hissed. It didn’t flee at the sight of us, as most snakes would. No. It challenged us. And so we came back to report it to you.”
“River dragon,” someone said into the silence that followed the scout’s words.
Marcus’ eyes snapped to the men clustered at the edge of the firelight’s reach. Perhaps he knew who had spoken, but Flavius didn’t. In any event, he didn’t single out anyone. “Ridiculous,” he said scathingly.
“You didn’t see it,” the first scout said abruptly, but before he could continue, Marcus cut in with, “And neither did you! You saw something. Probably a glimpse of a hippo, and then a glimpse of a snake, and in the reeds and the evening light, you thought they were one and the same.” He pointed a finger at the one scout and demanded, “How did you get wet?”
The man drew himself up. “If I could finish my report, sir. That head came up out of the reeds. It lifted its head higher than I’m tall, and it looked down on us. Then it whistled. Startled us both, and I shouted back at it. Big as it was, I still thought it would turn aside and go its way. Instead, it came at us. It darted its head at me, mouth open, and all I could see was row after row of teeth, in a maw the size of a cart. Carus shouted at him and threw his javelin. It stuck in him, made him angry. He roared again and went for me. I jumped to one side and ran. I thought it was solid riverbank, but it wasn’t and I went right over the edge and into the water. Lucky for me, because it lost sight of me.”
The other man took up the tale. “That’s when it turned on me and came after me, but I was already moving by then. It stopped to rub my javelin off. I heard the shaft snap, like it was nothing. I’d run up the bank and I think it was reluctant to come out of the reeds and cattails. I thought Tullus was dead. When he came out of the reeds and joined me, we decided we’d best come back to report this.”
Marcus had crossed his arms on his chest. “And the light is almost gone. And no doubt by the time we reach the river tomorrow, your giant snake will be gone as well. Go about your duties, both of you. Glowing eyes!”
And with that sharp remark, he dismissed not only the two scouts but all of the men as well. Just before he turned away, his eyes met Flavius’ and he gave a small toss of his head. He knew that he was summoned, but privately. In the dark and almost quiet hours of the restive camp, he went to Marcus’ tent.
“I need to know what they saw. Can you go out, before dawn, and then come back to me? If anyone can read the ground and let me know what is out there, you can. I need to get our troops across the river, Flavius. I’d like to cross here, at first light. But if there are hippos and crocodiles, then I need to know before we enter the water, not when we’re halfway across.”
“Or giant snakes?” Flavius asked him.
Marcus gave a dismissive laugh. “They’re young and poorly armed. I don’t blame them for running back here, but they have to learn that what I need is information, not rumors. I’ll have them here to hear your report in the morning. And that’s when they’ll face their discipline as well.”
Flavius had nodded, and gone off to take what sleep he could.
A Roman camp stirs early, but he was the first to arise that morning. He took with him not the arms of a warrior but the tools of a hunter. It did not take a lot of modification to turn a pike into a pole sling. It had greater range and could launch a heavier weapon than his small sling. If there were an irritable hippo or basking crocodiles, he wished to turn them away before they got too close to him. The gladius at his side was for closer occasions. The short blade was good for both stabbing and slashing. Flavius hoped it came to neither.
The banks of the Bagradas River teemed with life. Brush edged it and deep reed beds lined it. He followed the same well-trodden game trail that the scouts had investigated the day before. Animals knew the best places to water and the safest places to cross. That this path was so well trodden made him suspect he’d find a safe fording for the troops. Closer to the river, the brush to either side grew thicker and the reeds and cattails before him loomed taller. He was reassured by the plentiful birdsong and the darting of the busy feathered creatures. Off to one side, he heard some larger creature startle out of its wallow and then crash off into deep brush. It was a four-legged beast, he was sure of that. It increased his wariness, and he went more slowly. The ground began to become bog. He reached the edge of the reed bed and looked down a clear channel, almost a tunnel of a path that led out into the open moving waters of the river. On the far side, a similar muddy track led up the opposite bank. So. A place to cross. He decided to wade out and check the strength of the current and the footing. He was knee-deep in the water when suddenly all the bird noises stopped.
Flavius halted and stood still, listening. His eyes sought not color or shape but motion. He heard only the lapping rush of the water, saw only the normal movement of the reeds in harmony with the water’s flow.
Then, a sling’s shot away from him, the tops of the cattails moved against the current. He remained as he was, breathing slowly. A bank of the cattails bowed in unison, and then, a distance from that motion, a group of reeds bowed in the opposite direction. The next motion of the reeds was closer to him, and suddenly he realized that he was hearing a sound, one that had blended with the water noises when it was distant. But now it was closer. Something scraped through the reeds. The tall standing grasses rubbed against a creature’s hide in a long, smooth chorus. Flavius parted his lips, took a silent breath. He’d find out what it was now, before it came any closer. His pole sling was loaded. In a motion so practiced and natural that he gave it no thought, he tipped the pole and snapped it forward.
The missile was one of his own devising, heavier than he would have launched from a hand sling and with one end pointed. Sometimes it tumbled and struck blunt end first. Other times, the sharpened end bit. He cared little what happened this time; his intent was to startle whatever it was into betraying itself. His missile flew silently but when it struck, all silence ended.
The creature’s whistle was like a shriek of wind. Much closer than he had expected, a head reared up from the reeds. It turned its outraged gaze from its own body to see what had dared to attack it. Flavius was already backing up before it turned its boxy head and fixed its eyes on him. Even in the clear morning light, they burned orange. It took in breath with a sound like cold water hitting hot stone, its slit nostrils flaring as it did so. Then it opened wide its mouth and he saw, just as the scout had reported, a maw the size of a cart, lined with rows of inward-leaning teeth. He stumbled backwards, then spun and fled. The massive head struck the ground a pike’s length behind him. The shock of the impact traveled through the wet soil; he felt the weight of the creature’s head through the soles of his feet, and abruptly he was running as he had never run before. He risked one glance back when he gained the top of the bank. He saw nothing.
Then, just as he dared to take a breath, the immense head on its thick neck rose again from the reeds and rushes. It stared at him, and a long forked tongue emerged from its blunt snout, flickering and tasting the air. It regarded him with nothing of fear, only malevolence, with lidless orange eyes. It opened its maw and again that whistling shriek shattered the air around him. Then it came on, moving much faster than any legless creature had a right to. Flavius turned and fled. He ran and heard the gruesome sounds of an immense footless creature coming after him. His terror put the spring of a boy in his man’s legs and his heart thundered in his ears. When he finally mustered the courage to glance back, the snake was gone, but still he ran, unable to stop, almost to the outskirts of the camp.
He hurried through a camp that had begun to stir, pausing to speak to no one. He would start no rumors until Marcus had heard his news and decided how to deal with it. His mouth was dry; his heart still shaking when he stood before Regulus to make his report. It was to his commander, not to his old friend that he said, “They told you true, sir. It’s an immense snake, the likes of which no one has ever seen. I’d estimate it at one hundred feet long. And it’s aggressive. I hit it with a sling stone, and it came after me.”
He watched his friend absorb the news. He peered at him and perhaps a smile threatened as he challenged him quietly, “One hundred feet long, Flavius? A snake one hundred feet long?”
He swallowed in a dry throat. “My best estimate, sir. From the size of the head and how high he lifted it, and from how far away the reeds were stirred by his tail.” He cleared his throat. “I’m serious.”
He watched Marcus rethink his words, his face growing still, and then his jaw setting. He saw his commander announce his decision. “Regardless of its size, it’s still just a snake. A wolf or a bear may stand and face one man, or even half a dozen, but no creature will take a stand against a legion. We’ll form up and march down there. Doubtless the noise and activity will scare it off. What did you think of the river? Are the baggage train carts going to have any problems crossing there?”
Before Flavius could reply, they heard wild yells, and then a sound that stood all the hair up on Flavius’ back. A shrill whistle split the air. It was followed by shouts of “Dragon! Dragon!” The whistling shriek of the creature was repeated, more loudly. It was followed by screams, very human screams that abruptly stopped. More shouting, panicky, wordless yells.
Marcus had been half-dressed when Flavius arrived. Now he hastily buckled his breastplate and snatched up his helm. “Let’s go,” he said, and though a dozen men fell in at his heels, Flavius felt the words had been meant for him. They went at a dogtrot through the camp and toward the river. Flavius drew his shortsword as he ran, hoping he’d never be near enough to use it. All around him, other men in various stages of dress joined the hurrying throng. “Archers to me!” Marcus shouted, and within a score of strides, he was flanked by bowmen. Flavius doggedly held his place just behind Marcus’ left shoulder.
They did not reach the edge of camp before a tide of shouting men met them. They carried one man, and though he was still roaring with pain, Flavius knew him for a dead man. His left leg had been shorn away at the hip.
“It’s a dragon!”
“Snake got two of them right way. They just went to fetch water.”
“Eyes the size of cartwheels!”
“Knocked down six men and crushed them. Just crushed them!”
“It ate them. Gods help us, it ate them!”
“It’s a demon, a Carthaginian demon!”
“They’ve set a dragon on us!”
“It’s coming! It’s coming!”
Behind the fleeing men, Flavius saw the great head rise. Up it went and up, higher and higher. It looked down on all of them, eyes gleaming, forked tongue long as a bullwhip flickering in and out of its mouth. Flavius felt cold, as if evil had looked directly at him. The creature, dragon or snake, whistled then, a high powerful gust of sound. Some men cried out and others clapped their hands to their ears.
“Archers!” shouted Regulus, and a score of flights took wing, their hiss lost in the snake’s long whistle. Some arrows missed; others skipped over the creature’s scaled back. Some struck, stuck briefly, and then fell as the snake shook itself. Perhaps six hit and sank into the creature. If it felt any pain, it did not show it. Instead, it struck, the immense head, mouth open wide, darting down to seize two soldiers. The men shrieked as it lifted them into the air. It threw back its head and gulped, and their comrades were suddenly visible lumps moving down the snake’s throat. Flavius felt cold. The snake had seized them so quickly, they could not be dead. They had been swallowed alive.
Flavius had not heard the command given to fire again, but another phalanx of arrows was arching toward the beast. It had come closer and they struck more true. Of those that hit, most stuck well. This time, the snake gave a whistle of fury. It flung itself flat and wallowed, trying to dislodge the arrows. Its whipping tail cleared brush from the riverside.
“Fall back!” Regulus shouted, and in a matter of moments they were in full retreat from the creature. It was not the most orderly withdrawal that Flavius had ever participated in, but it achieved its goal. The ranks of men reformed defensively as they put distance between themselves and the Carthaginian monster. Flavius’ knees felt rubbery and his mind still reeled from that one revealing glimpse of the full extent of the creature. It was more than a hundred feet long; of that, he was sure. How much longer, he had no desire to know.
“It’s not following!” someone shouted.
“Keep moving!” Regulus ordered. “Back to the camp and man the fortifications.” Then he cast a sideways look at Flavius. “Go see,” he said quietly. Heart in his throat, Flavius turned and began to walk back through the crowd of oncoming men. When he had passed the last stragglers, he pushed on, ears strained and his sling at the ready. He knew it would not do much, but it was his oldest and most familiar weapon. And, he thought to himself, it had a lot more range than a gladius. He grinned, surprising himself, and walked on.
When he could see the bodies of the fallen, he stopped. He scanned the surrounding brush and saw no sign of the immense creature. It had wallowed out a section of brush and grasses where it rolled to dislodge the arrows. He stood a time longer, surveying the scene. When first one carrion bird and then another swept in and landed near the bodies, he judged that the serpent was truly gone. Still, his advance was cautious.
All the downed men were dead. One breathed a little still, air rasping in and out of his slack mouth, but his torso was crushed and there was no light in his eyes. Sometimes the body took a little time to know it was dead. He stood from appraising the man and forced himself to walk on. The serpent had cut a large swath through the brush in its retreat. He found no blood or any sign that they had dealt it significant injuries. He followed it until he could see the river and the crushed reeds where the creature had returned to the water. Down there, it could conceal itself. He would go no farther. There was no need of it.
When he reported back to Marcus, he realized how shaken his friend was. He listened gravely to what Flavius told him, then shook his head. “We are here to fight Carthaginians, not deal with a giant snake. The idea that it is some kind of demon or dragon set on us by the Carthaginians has shaken them. I don’t intend to challenge it again. I’ll send a burial detail for the fallen, but I’ve decided to move downriver. I’ve already sent the scouts ahead, looking for a place to cross. We can’t linger here. We’ll move on.”
Flavius had felt relief but also surprise that Marcus would follow so sensible a course. He had expected his friend to dig in and do battle with it. Marcus’ next words cleared away the mystery. “It’s big, but it’s only a snake. It’s not worth our time.”
Flavius nodded to that and withdrew. Marcus had always been about being a soldier. The stalking that a hunter did and the necessity of trying to think like his prey in order to hunt it had never appealed to him. War he saw as a challenge between men, demanding an understanding of strategy. He had never seen animals as complex and unpredictable, as Flavius did. He had never seen animals as worthy opponents, never understood Flavius’ fascination with hunting.
Now, as Flavius looked up at his friend in his cage, he saw too clearly the animal that Marcus had always lived inside. The man’s mind was slowly giving way to the beast that enclosed him. Pain wracked him and demanded his attention. He saw the tremors that had begun to run over Marcus’ body. His knees shook, and a trickle of blood-tinged urine ran down his leg and dripped onto the street and the passersby below him. A shout of outrage greeted this, and the market crowd that had almost forgotten the dying man above them once more turned their eyes upward.
The woman who had been spattered tore her scarf from her shoulders and threw it to the ground. She looked up at Marcus and shook her fist and shouted obscenities at him. A wave of mocking laughter followed her words, along with pointing gestures and other mocking shouts. A few onlookers stooped to pick up stones.
* * * *
The pain, for a time, had come in waves that threatened to sweep his consciousness away. Through each engulfing surge, he had held tight to the bars of his cage as a drowning sailor might cling to a bit of floating wreckage. He knew it offered him no safety, but he would not release his grip. He’d die standing, and not just because a fall would mean being impaled on one of the coarse spikes sticking up from the bottom of his cage. He’d die upright, a Roman citizen, a consul, a soldier, not curled like a speared dog.
The pain had not abated, but it had turned into something else. Just as the crash of storm waves can eventually lull a man to sleep, so it was with the pain now. It was there, and so constant that his thoughts floated on top of it, only disconnecting when an especially sharp jab penetrated his mind. The pain seemed to provoke his memories, waking the sharpest and most potent of them. His triumph at Aspis; he had seized the whole city with scarcely a blow. That had been a summer! Hamilcar had avoided him, and his army had virtually had the run of Carthage. The plunder had been rich, and he’d lost count of how many captured Roman soldiers he had regained. Oh, he had been the Senate’s darling then. Then, the prospect of being granted a Triumph and paraded through Rome had loomed large and fresh before him, as keenly imagined as when he had been a boy. It would be his. He would be acknowledged as a hero by cheering, adoring crowds.
But then Manlius, his fellow consul, had decided to sail back to Rome, taking the best of their plunder home. And Hamilcar, general for the Carthaginians, had perhaps decided that gave him some sort of advantage. He had brought his army to an encampment on high wooded ground on the far side of the Bagradas River. Regulus had not been daunted. He’d set out to meet and challenge him, taking infantry, cavalry, and a good force of ballistae.
But then they had come to the river. And that damn African snake. Some of his men had believed it a Carthaginian demon, sent by Hamilcar to attack them. When he had seen it for himself, he hadn’t been able to comprehend the creature. Flavius had tried to tell him; that was the first and last time he’d ever doubted his friend’s evaluation of an animal. He’d lost thirteen men in his first encounter with the creature, too big a loss against such an adversary. He’d been intent on Hamilcar and fearful of losing his element of surprise. And so, he’d withdrawn his men, surrendering the riverbank to the immense snake, as he never would have conceded it to any human opponent. He’d marched his men downriver, looking for a good place to ford, while his baggage train and the heavier wheeled artillery had followed on the higher, firmer ground.
A few hours of marching and he’d found a good fording place. He’d congratulated himself on losing so little time. Mounted on his horse, he’d led his men to the river and halted there on the bank to watch the crossing of his troops. He’d posted archers on what little higher ground there was, a standard precaution he took whenever he committed that many troops to a river crossing. The Bagradas was wide, shallow at the edges and mucky, with muddy banks forested with reeds and cattails taller than a man on horseback. The front ranks of his soldiers pushed their way forward through them. He watched them go, the leading men disappearing into the green ranks of river plants, pushing a narrow path that those who followed would soon trample into a wide swath.
He hoped the bottom would be more gravel than muck as they got closer to the middle of the river. He wanted to get across quickly and out onto the other side, and then up onto firmer ground. Fording a river was always a vulnerable time for any military force. A man chest-deep in moving water presents a good target without being capable of defending himself. Anxiously, he scanned the far side of the river through the fence of reeds and grasses. He saw no sign of the enemy. He would not relax until his first ranks were on the other side of the river and posting more archers there to guard the crossing place.
But he was not looking in the right place, or for the right opponent.
Flavius had been standing near his horse. He heard his friend gasp and turned his head. For a moment, his eyes could make no sense of what he saw. And then he realized that he was staring at a wall of snakeskin, a pattern of animal hide that was sliding through the tall bank of reeds, headed directly for his vulnerable troops.
Who could ever have imagined that a snake of that size could move so swiftly, let alone so quietly? Who could ever have imagined that any animal would have anticipated that they would move downriver and attempt another crossing? It might have been a coincidence. It might have been that the creature was hungry and had followed the noise of the troops on the march.
Or it might truly be a Carthaginian demon, some ancient evil summoned by them to put an end to his domination of their lands. The creature slid near soundlessly through the water and the bowing reeds. For a moment, he was stunned again at the size of it. It seemed impossible that such a long movement of grasses could be caused by a single creature. He saw it raise its blunt-nosed head, saw its jaws gape wide.
“Ware serpent!” he shouted, the first to give the warning, and then a hundred voices took up his cry. “Serpent!” Now there was an inadequate word to describe the nightmare that attacked them! A serpent was a creature that a man might tread underfoot. At its worst, here in Africa one might encounter a boa crushing a goat in its coils. Serpent was not a word that could apply to a creature the length of a city wall and almost the height of one.
It moved like a wish, like a sigh, like a gleaming scythe, newly sharpened, mowing down grain. He glimpsed it as a moving wall seen between the vertical spikes of the upright reeds. Scales glittered when the sun touched them and gleamed in the gentle shade of the reeds. It moved in a relentless, remorseless way that seemed more like a wave or a landslide than like a living creature as it sliced through the ranked men in the water. Some it caught up in its jaws. It swallowed them whole, the great muscles on the sides of its throat working as it crushed the men down its throat. Others were pushed down into the water, if not by the creature’s own body, then by the wave that its undulating motion created. It moved swiftly through the formation, and then, with a lash of its gigantic tail, it slashed again at the struggling men who either swam or tried to regain their footing in the current.
“Archers!” Regulus had shouted, but their arrows were already bouncing off the snake’s smooth hide or sticking like wobbly pins, barely penetrating its armor. The missiles did no good and much harm, for the snake doubled back on itself. A rank reptilian stench suddenly filled the air as the creature lashed like a massive whip through the struggling men in the water. It caught some of them in its jaws, crushed them, and flung the bodies aside in a fury. One man in the water, brave or foolish, most likely both, tried to plunge his pike into the creature. The sharp point skittered along the snake’s scales to no effect. An instant later, the snake bent its head and engulfed the man in its mouth. A shake sent his pike flying. A convulsive swallow, and its enemy was gone. Whistling scream after scream split the air. The few bodies it snapped up and swallowed seemed afterthoughts to its wrath.
Regulus fought his mount. Battle-trained, nonetheless, she reared, screaming in terror, and when he tightened his reins, she backed and fought for her head. Was that struggle what turned the snake’s attention to him? Perhaps it was only that a man mounted on a horse was a larger creature than the frantic men drowning in the river. Whatever it was, the snake’s gleaming gaze fell on him, and suddenly it came straight for him. The lashing tail that drove it whipped the river to brown froth. The snake turned its immense head sideways, jaws gaping wide, plainly intending to seize both man and horse in its jaws.
Useless to flee. He’d never escape the snake’s speed. Might as well stand his ground and die a hero, as flee and be remembered as a coward. Strange. Even now, he recalled clearly that he had not been afraid. Surprised, a bit, that he would die in battle against a snake rather than against the Carthaginians. He recalled thinking clearly that men would remember his death. His sword was already in his hand, though he could not recall drawing it. Foolish weapon for an encounter such as this, and yet he would draw blood if he could. The snake whistled as it came, a sky-splitting sound that made thought impossible. He felt stunned by the impact against his ears, his skin.
Around him, he was dimly aware of his men scattering. The mare reared and he held her in with sheer strength. The snake’s gaping mouth came at him; the stench was overpowering. Then, as the creature’s jaws were all around him, he felt a sudden slam of a body against his. “Marcus!” the man might have shouted, but that smaller sound was lost in the snake’s whistle.
He didn’t recognize Flavius when he tackled him from the horse. He only knew him as he hit the muddy bank of the river, and looked up, to see the snake lifting both horse and Flavius from the ground. The creature’s jaws had closed on the horse’s chest. Flavius’ flying dive to drive Marcus from the horse meant that one of his legs had been caught in the snake’s jaws as it gripped his unfortunate mare. Flavius dangled, head down, roaring with terror and pain as the mare struggled wildly in the snake’s mouth.
Marcus had rolled as he struck the ground. He came instinctively back to his feet and then leaped upward and caught his friend round the chest. His added weight literally tore Flavius from the serpent’s jaws. Lightened of Flavius’ weight, the snake was content to continue its battle to engulf the wildly kicking horse. He scarcely noticed the men who fell back to the ground. That time, Marcus had landed heavily with Flavius’ weight on top of him. Gasping for air, he rolled out from under his friend, then seized him under the arms and dragged him back, away from the open riverbank and into the protective brush.
They both stank of serpent, and Flavius was bleeding profusely. His thigh was scored deeply in several long gashes where the serpent’s teeth had gripped him. He fought Marcus as Marcus tried to bind his leg firmly to stop the bleeding. Only as he tied the last knot did he realize that his friend was not fighting him, but was convulsing. The snake’s bite was toxic. Flavius was going to die. He’d taken Marcus’ death as his own.
A shiver shook Marcus and he came a little back to himself. He still gripped the bars of his cage. The sun and wind had dried his eyes to uselessness. He could sense there still was light; that was all. How many days had he stood here, he wondered, and how many more must he endure until death took him? His cracked lips parted, snarl or smile, he did not know. His mind shaped words his mouth could no longer form. Flavius, you took my hero’s death from me. And left me to find this one. It was no favor, my friend. No favor at all to me.
* * * *
Flavius saw him shudder. So did the rest of the crowd. Like jackals attracted to an injured beast, they fixed their eyes on him. Flavius glanced from face to face. Flared nostrils, parted lips, shining eyes. They wagged their head knowingly to one another and readied their dirty little missiles. They would see that Marcus’ last moments were full of torment and mockery. With flung stones and vile words, they would claim his dog’s death as a bizarre victory for themselves.
Anger swept through him, and he longed for a sword. He had no weapon, only the pole sling he’d manufactured from the stolen purse and his walking staff. Last night, he’d used it to kill a bird perched in a tree. It had been a small meal, but he’d been pleased to discover that he hadn’t lost his skill. But it was a hunter’s or a marksman’s weapon, not something to turn against a mob.
He could turn his walking staff against them, perhaps, but there would not be the satisfaction of teaching them anything. Even if he’d had a gladius, he could not kill them all, but he could teach them the difference between tormenting a man in a cage and dying in a battle against a bared blade. Not that it would save Marcus. There would still be the rattle of stones against the iron bars of his prison and the small batterings of the ones that reached him. He would still hear their insults and mockery hurled along with the stones. His friend had stood strong all day, but now he would go down ignominiously. Flavius looked around him, sick with knowledge. He could not save Marcus.
He could not save Marcus from death. But, perhaps, he could save him from this particular death. He stooped for a stone, picked up a likely one, and retreated to the edge of the street. He’d have to work quickly. The crowd was already winging stones at Marcus. Most of them fell short, and even the missiles that struck had little power. He was satisfied to see that they fell back into the gathering crowd, striking some of the gawkers’ upturned faces.
In the shelter of a doorway, he considered the stone he’d chosen. Then he groped in the knotted rag at his waist, and found the wad of wax from the stolen purse. He jabbed himself on the serpent’s tooth as he took it out. The damnable thing was still sharp as ever, despite all the time it had festered inside his body.
He remembered too well the day he’d acquired it. He’d leaped, intending only to knock Marcus out of the way. He could still recall, in ghastly detail, how the serpent’s jaws had closed on his leg. He’d dangled, upside down, the pain from the stabbing teeth as sharp as the toxin from the creature’s mouth. Instantly, he’d felt the hot acid kiss of it and known he was poisoned. He’d been saved by the horse’s harness. The serpent’s teeth had passed completely through his leg; they grated on something, perhaps a buckle or bronze plate. He’d felt the snake’s fury as it clenched its teeth all the tighter. And then, as teeth ground against metal, he’d felt one break.
The snake had briefly loosened its grip just as Marcus leaped for him and seized him. He’d literally been torn from the jaws of death by his friend. “Leave me!” he’d gasped, knowing that he was dying, and he’d sunk into blackness.
When next he’d found light, all had changed. His leg was tightly bandaged, his swollen flesh rippling next to the wrapping, and fever burned him. Marcus had been crouched beside him. He looked up at the leaves of an oak tree against the evening sky and smelled pine needles. So Marcus had withdrawn from the snake. Had he given up his river crossing, then? He’d blinked dully, knowing that, for him, the fight was done. Whatever became of him now was in the hands of his friend and commander. Marcus had grinned at him, a wolf’s smile. “You’re awake then? Good. I want you to see, my friend. If you should die this night, I want you to know that I did not suffer your enemy to outlive you.
“Sit him up,” Marcus commanded someone, and, with a fine disregard for Flavius’ wishes, two men did just that. He realized dizzily that he was on a slight rise scarcely worthy to be called a foothill, looking down on the river valley. They were not, then, that far away from the snake’s territory. He felt queasy, and not just from the poison. Fear could do that to a man.
“What?” he managed, and with the word, felt that it was not just his leg, but his entire body that swelled with the venom.
“Give him water,” Marcus directed one of the men, but he didn’t even look toward Flavius. He was watching the river. Watching and waiting. “There,” he breathed. “There you are. We see you now.” He turned and shouted to someone behind them, “Do you mark him now? You can’t miss him. He’s as big as a city wall, and so shall we treat him. Take your best aim and let fly.”
One of the men held water in a cup to his mouth. Flavius tried to drink. His lips, his tongue, all parts of his mouth were stupid and swollen. He wet his tongue, choked, gasped in air, gulped water, and then managed to pull his face away from the offered cup. Someone, somewhere was beating a drum, a slow thwacking noise. It made no sense. As he pulled his face away from the cup, he heard the familiar thud and then deep vibration as a ballista launched a shot. Four others followed in succession. He knew them now, knew the deep thock-thock-thock as the bowstring was racheted back, and then the release, followed by the deep hum of vibrating leather. They were using shot, not bolts, and the men on the rise were shouting and leaping in excitement as each missile was launched. “That’s a hit!” someone shouted, and “Look at him thrash! Look at him thrash!” another replied.
Flavius forced his eyes wider and managed to focus them on the scene. Marcus had chosen to attack the snake with ballistae. The men on the weapons were working frantically, loading and cranking and adjusting each launch to target the writhing snake. Below, each heavy shot of stone either sent up a plume of brown water as it missed, or thudded harshly against the scaled back of the snake before splashing into the river. The snake was in the deep reeds, but from his vantage, Marcus could look down on him. He had glimpses of the broad scaled back and his lashing tail, but even when no part of the snake was visible, they could track him by the way he parted the reeds and sent brown tendrils of mud unfurling into the tan waters of the river.
“Can’t kill him,” Flavius said, but it came out as a muted mumble and no one paid him any heed. He caught only glimpses of the battle, for the men in front of him shouted and leaped and pounded one another with each successful hit on the snake. But Flavius knew snakes. He’d held them in his hands when he was a boy and knew how supple they were, how flexible their ribs. “Head,” he suggested, and then, from swollen lips, he shouted at Marcus, “Head. Skull!”
Had he heard him, or had he figured it out for himself? “Aim for his head. All of you. Focus your missiles on his head! Quickly, before he finds better cover or goes back deep into the river.”
His men complied, ratcheting and loading and raining a hail of rocks down on the snake below. Battered and confused, the creature turned first one way and then another, trying to elude its mysterious enemy. Its tail, Flavius saw, did not thrash so wildly as it had; perhaps one of the missiles had done some damage to its spine after all. Another hit, this one closer to the snake’s wedge-shaped head, and suddenly its movements slowed and became more labored. It more twisted than thrashed now; Flavius caught a glimpse of pale belly scales as the creature rolled in agony.
And then, the hit. Flavius knew the death blow when he saw it. The rock struck the snake’s head and stuck there, wedged into the animal’s skull. The twitches became ever slower; undeterred, the men on the ballistae continued to rain stone after stone down on the creature. Even after it was still, they assaulted it, pelting its yielding body over and over.
“Enough!” Marcus shouted at last, long after Flavius knew the snake was dead. He turned to someone, spoke over Flavius’ head. “Send two men down to be sure of it. And when they are sure it’s dead, I want them to measure it.”
“It’s a hundred foot if it’s one,” someone observed.
“Closer to a hundred and twenty,” someone else opined.
“No one’s going to believe us,” someone else laughed sourly
Flavius saw Marcus stiffen. The poison was working in him, and his vision wavered before him. He had a glimpse of Marcus’ set jaw and grim eyes. Then, as he gave in and closed his own eyes, he heard Marcus say, “They’ll believe us. This is no wild tale from Africa, no braggart’s boast. They’ll believe because we’ll send them the hide. And the head. We’ll skin it out and send it back to Rome. They’ll believe.”
And they had. Flavius had ridden in the oxcart alongside the salted and stinking hide. The severed head, missing a number of souvenir teeth, had been at the end of the wagon. The sight and the smell of it baking under the hot African sun had sickened him almost as much as the poison and infection coursing through his body. He had leaned against the side of the wagon, his bandaged leg propped up before him and stared at it blearily. He could see the broken tooth in the snake’s jaw, and knew where the rest of it was. Up against the bone in his thigh, snugged in tight. The healer had judged it safest to leave it where it was. “You’ll heal up around it, never know it’s there,” the man had lied to Flavius. And Flavius, too sick and weary to consider the idea of letting him dig in the wound for it, had nodded and accepted the lie.
Marcus had come to bid him farewell. “You know I’d keep you by my side if I could, but it’s for the best that you go home. You can tell my tale better than anyone else. And no one will doubt you when you’ve got both skull and hide to back you up. I’m sorry to send you home like this. But I promise that at the next muster, you’ll join me again. I hope you don’t think I’m breaking my promise.”
They both knew to what he referred. Flavius had sighed. Even if he had told Marcus that he never wanted to go soldiering again, his friend would not have believed it. So he summoned a smile and said, “As I recall, you only promised that you’d never go to war without me. And I don’t recall that I ever said I wouldn’t go home without you!”
“That’s true, old friend. The promise was mine, not yours. Well, travel well. And send me word of my family, and tell my boys of our deeds. I’ll be home again soon enough. And next time we form up, be sure that you will march with me again.”
And he was home again soon. That time. Flavius squeezed his eyes shut for a moment, wishing he could shut out the sounds of the crowd as well. The catcalls were getting louder. Marcus had never grasped that for Flavius, war was a duty, not a call to glory. So the next time there had been a muster, as Flavius limped forward on the leg that had never fully healed, Marcus kept his word. Flavius was once more chosen to march with him.
And he’d ended up here. An escaped slave in Carthage.
He looked at what he had fashioned from the serpent’s tooth. He balanced it in his hand, considering. A pole sling worked best with a rounded stone. This missile might well tumble. The bars of the cage might deflect it. It was a stupid plan, a hopeless gesture. He looked up at his friend, and what he saw decided him.
Some flung object had struck Marcus’ brow. Bright blood trickled from the split. But more than that, the setting sun cast a red light on him. His bared skin looked scarlet in the dying light. Red painted him, just as if he were riding in a chariot through Rome, riding to have his Triumph recognized. He stood upright, trembling with the effort of remaining so. His ruined eyes stared to the west.
Flavius stepped out into the street, walked determinedly to the best vantage point. He’d have one chance, and the pole sling demanded space. Marcus was visibly failing as petty stones and flung insults filled the air and his ears. Flavius considered well. Then he took a deep breath.
“Ware serpent!” he shouted.
Marcus did not turn toward him. Perhaps, his grip on the bars tightened. Perhaps not. He might never know that his friend was there to witness him die, might never know what Flavius risked in raising his voice. A few people had turned to stare at him, hearing his foreign words. He busied himself, settling his missile in his sling, testing the swing of it. He fixed his eyes and his heart on his friend. He nodded a farewell Marcus could not see. Then he launched the tooth. It flew true. He saw it strike Marcus’ chest, saw it sink into his heart. Marcus jerked with the impact.
“Memento mori!” he shouted, and at those words, his friend did, for the last time, turn toward him. Then he sank, dead but never relinquishing his grip on the bars, onto the spikes that had so long awaited him. The crowd roared in triumph, but he was past hearing them. Consul Marcus Attilius Regulus was dead, slain by a serpent. It no longer mattered that fools continued to hurl stones and offal at him. He was gone.
Flavius stood but a moment longer. A few people had marked what he had done, but they marked also that he gripped his staff tightly, and that he did not avoid their stares. They turned away from him and continued to pick up stones and hurl them at Marcus’ body. Like soldiers hurling rocks at a dead serpent. Better to taunt a dead lion than a live jackal, Flavius thought to himself.
Then he turned and walked away. Home was a long way from here, but he knew he would make it. He had never promised Marcus that he wouldn’t go home without him. He would. He spoke a new promise to the gathering evening. “I’ll never go to war again, Marcus. Not without you.”