As the Eagle Flies
The air was thick and heavy, laden with the comfortable weight of a lazy afternoon. All across the city, Merchants were shutting up shop, counting out small piles of Denarii onto hefty bronze scales. Tanned women, wrapped in their brightly coloured togas wandered the streets, stopping to converse with friends and neighbours about this and that. Browbeaten slaves, marked out by their plain white tunics, drew buckets of water from the public wells and hefted them up five flights of marble stairs. In the dozens of scattered shrines and temples, bearded priests lit sticks of incense and chanted the names of the gods, preparing for the evening service, when those who had been lucky enough to have fruitful days would thank the gods, and those who had been less fortunate would seek their aid.
Although the Legion barracks had a marvellous view over the city from its hilltop position, Decius Maximus saw none of this. His mind was focused entirely on the heavy oaken club that was swinging low towards his gut.
The packed dirt floor of the drill square puffed dust under the attentions of several dozen pairs of sandaled feet. There were over fifty men striding back and forth over its surface, currently engaged in the tiring work of learning the art of war. Forty of the men were, for the most part, fresh-faced youngsters who had never wielded a weapon before in their life. They were split into pairs, each partner taking it in turns to launch a series of often-clumsy strikes with their beaten wooden weapons, while the other backed away across the length of the courtyard, parrying the heavy blows with their own clubs. Or occasionally, unintentionally, with their forearms.
The other dozen or so men wore the grizzled look of Veterans, recalled from the empire's frontier to serve the last five years of their enlisted service training the next generation of Legionaries. These old soldiers prowled the ranks of the duellists, pausing here and there to offer a word of advice or censorship as appropriate. All of them had at least one visible scar, and their presence was a potent reminder to the young men just what it was they had joined up for. They had been training for a week, learning the huge variety of skills that it was required for a legionnaire to know, ranging from marching drill to packing. Today was the men's first chance to use a weapon.
They were doing poorly.
Decius stepped back smartly, letting the heavy cudgel of his opponent swing past his face. The breeze was a welcome relief from the heat brought on by his exertions so far. The momentum of the swing left his opponent un-defended for several seconds as he struggled to pull back his weapon, and it would have been easy for Decius to counter-attack and give his opponent as solid whack on the skull, but he refrained from doing so. He'd learnt within a few short hours of his arrival to obey orders, not to creatively interpret them. The bruises on his back still hurt in memory of what had happened the last time he'd tried that.
He stepped back into a shadow, realising that he'd come to the limit of the courtyard and his defensive role. His opponent realised it too, and they both paused for a second to catch their breath. Decius took the opportunity to gasp in several deep breaths and flex his fingers experimentally. They were sore from a glancing blow that had rebounded off his club and down, but he judged them to be functional.
The man facing him settled back into an instinctive defensive stance and Decius took that as his cue to attack. Learning from his opponent's style, he refrained from using arcing swings and instead settled on a series of short smacks, aiming at his opponents club and not the man himself. It paid off. Before they were even half-way across the square he managed to land a blow fully onto his opponents clenched fingers, causing him to yelp and drop his baton. One of the instructors saw it and came over. He performed a quick check on the recruit's fingers and declared them to be unbroken. None-the-less, a few moments later the overall supervisor called out from the shaded walkway that bordered the courtyard.
"CEASE. Alright recruits, you've earned yourselves a fifteen minute break…"
The sighs of relief were almost the same volume as the clattering of dropped cudgels. The supervisor smiled evilly before he continued.
"…, after which you'll be doing laps of the compound."
The sighs were instantly replaced by groans. Decius was sympathetic. The perimeter of the military compound was over five miles in length. Deciding that he'd better make the most of his fifteen minutes, he staggered over to the nearest wall, sank down into an undignified heap, and began to attempt to rub the pain in his limbs away.
Two weeks later
The fire coursing through his limbs was excruciatingly painful, yet Decius knew he had to bear it. He gasped down a deep breath, and then allowed his arms to bend under his weight once again. With a monumental effort, he halted his downward sink and held it, before slowly forcing himself back up again. His arms were shaking, and his sweat was running down his forehead and into his eyes. One more…
Again, he sunk down, and again he forced his trembling arms to carry himself back up. And with that, his task was done. Not a moment too soon, as his upper body decided that it had had enough and simply refused to hold him anymore. Had he had any air left in his lungs, it would have been driven from him by the impact.
With a groan, he rolled off the mat and allowed his partner to take his place doing the forty push-ups. The hardened Veterans might scoff at such labour, but Decius and the other recruits were for the most part son's of Merchants and thus utterly unused to the tough physical regime. And it was tough. They'd started a week ago, doing five of each form of exercise, and the number had increased each time they came back.
It was paying off though, that much was clear. Decius was firmly convinced that he no longer had an ounce of lazy fat anywhere on his body, and he could feel his newly developed muscles flex under his tunic when he walked now. Whether it would be enough, when the time came to fight, was unknown.
He looked at his partner, noticing the slight tremors running the length of his body, and he was only on his tenth. Decius reckoned he might have a slight advantage over many of the other recruits, in that he'd known what he was in for before he arrived.
His father had been a legionnaire too, a centurion to be precise, in command of the 3rd Century, 2nd Cohort, 12th Legion. As a result, Decius had not seen his father until he was about six years old, but it became immediately apparent that the young boy idolised his father. And right from the off, his father had started to educate his son in the manner of war. He'd been taught how to march, raising his small arms all the way to ninety degrees, having had it presented as a fun game to play. He played rough and tumble like any small boy, but his father had gently instructed him on how to apply tactics and techniques, how to make up for his small size by using his opponents mass against them. Many different things young Decius had been taught, and now it was paying off.
As his partner struggled on into the thirties, Decius looked around at the other recruits. There were about eighty in here, and from what Decius had gleaned from his father, they would eventually conclude their training and be sent off to join one of Rome's many legions. He wondered which one he'd end up in. He wondered who he'd end up fighting. He wondered if he would survive.
The whetstone made a soft hiss as it glided along the edges of his blade. A series of small sparks tumbled to the wooden floor with every stroke, but the varnished timber was unlikely to fire up. Decius held his Gladus up to the light that shafted in through the window, admiring the sparkle that it gave. The short sword was to be his primary weapon, and in all likelihood his life would depend on it many times.
Sitting on the end of his bed across the room from Decius, his friend Marcus grinned at him. In a half-mocking tone of voice he called out:
"Your girlfriend looking fine, Decius?"
Decius smiled, taking the remark as the joke it was intended to be, before replying in a perfectly serious tone of voice:
"Jealous, Marcus? Maybe it's time we found you a real women, before I wake up in the night to find you kissing my sword hilt."
There were sniggering sounds from the adjacent beds and Marcus swooned backwards in pretend-agony:
"Oh! An arrow to my heart! How could you Decius?"
He simply smiled again and set the blade aside, before taking up his banded iron chest-armour and setting to work with a cloth, removing all trace of grime or mud. There was plenty, for over the past few weeks they had been making 20 mile route marches in full kit. It had been while on one of these marches that his friendship with Marcus had begun. They had been permitted to talk while marching and Marcus had helped them keep the rhythm by singing out a very… unusual tune about the senate consuls and their wives. Decius was just glad that they'd avoided meeting any patricians.
He looked around the long barracks room, filled with the low murmur of conversation, punctuated by the hiss of whetstones and the rubbing of cloths, and thought about the other soldiers that he knew. The bed next to Marcus was taken by his brother Cassius, with whom Decius had become fast friends. They were all hoping that they'd be assigned to the same century. Cassius was as tall as Marcus short, with a certain shape to his mouth that made him seem perpetually serious. Marcus on the other hand always looked as though he was holding in some private joke, which was rare as they usually came out before he could think.
The soldier nearest the door suddenly looked up in alarm before springing to his feet. The sudden motion drew everyone's eyes to the door, and the man who had just entered had enough of a reputation that they immediately leapt up as well. Centurion Adiele was not a man you wanted to cross. Ever.
The centurion stood motionless until every last occupant of the barrack room was standing stiffly to attention, and then strode forwards into the middle of the room. He was clad in full uniform, from the shining silver breastplate to the red-crested helmet, and Decius had to admit he looked imposing. Then again, Adiele was one of those men who always looked imposing, even when he was relaxed. Maybe it had something to do with his voice, Decius considered, as the officer's whipcord tone cut across the room.
"Attention. Dispersal orders have just arrived. This detachment to be allocated to the 12th Legion, currently stationed near Narbo Martius. There to be dispersed amongst the Centuries according to legion discretion, with intention to replace losses suffered during conquest of said region. All soldiers to report with full kit to city dockyards two, I repeat two, weeks from today for registration. Any soldier found missing at the appointed time will be listed as a deserter."
Decius shuddered slightly. They all knew what happened to deserters. Even if your own family didn't turn you in, the Legion would track you down. The first man to attempt to abscond from training had been hauled back to the barracks in chains before being whipped to death in front of his comrades. The message had been clear: once you join the Legion, you're there for life.
Decius turned his attention back to the centurion, noticing with surprise how the instructor's voice had gone soft.
"Until that date, all soldiers are granted leave. I suggest you go home and say goodbye to your families. Once you get on that boat, you most likely won't be returning for at least ten years. And that's if you're lucky. Dismissed."
Without another word the Centurion turned and walked out the room. At once the soldiers sat down on their beds and the buzz of conversation filled the room. Decius looked over at Marcus and asked him where he was going to spend his leave. Marcus shrugged and looked at his brother.
"We came here from a small village about a week's march to the south. Even if we could get home and back in the time, I have no desire to return. Our father didn't exactly approve of the Legion."
Decius was surprised. Most fathers would have been proud to have a pair of legionnaires for sons. An idea occurred to him.
"I'll be spending mine with my family. Our house is on the far side of the city. I'm sure my father wouldn't object to you two staying for a while."
Marcus grinned broadly.
"First worthwhile thing you've said all day."
Decius was quite enjoying the respect he was suddenly getting. People who wouldn't have looked twice at him before today were being courteous and respectful. He'd even received, and returned, a salute from a gnarled old man who was clearly an ex-soldier. He supposed it was the uniform that was doing it. The armour and cloak of a Roman Legionnaire was designed at least partly to impress, and the looks he'd gotten from a few of the street-girls certainly suggested that it was doing it's job.
Next to him, Marcus leaned forwards and muttered in his ear. "I wonder if they'll object to a kiss…"
Cassius had overheard and punched his brother on the arm. "Please, when have you ever been able to keep it to a single kiss? Besides, the centurion will have your hide if he finds out you've been sullying the reputation of the Legion."
Decius chuckled. Adiele had stopped them just before they walked out of the gates and ferociously threatened Marcus with a variety of inventive punishments if he chatted up a whore while in uniform. Evidently Marcus had remembered this too for he reluctantly pulled his eyes away from the women and paid attention to where they were going. He scratched his head and looked around again, as if looking for something.
"Blimey, Decius, when were you planning to tell us you lived in the upper quarter?"
The 'Upper Quarter' was the name given to the district they were now walking towards. It was situated on top of a large hill that rose majestically above the roofs of the city below, and was exclusively dedicated to villas for the wealthy citizens of Arretium. Decius shook his head and explained.
"My father is an ex-centurion from the twelfth legion. He saved the life of his commanding officer during a battle in the Alps, and the man rewarded him with a house and an honourable discharge. He came back here and married my mother."
As he'd been talking, Decius had turned left along one of the ring street that branched off from the main path. The Quarter was arranged like that, with all the Villas arranged in tiers up to the summit. There were twenty tiers in total; Decius had turned off on the third.
Eventually he stopped before a plain white stone archway, capped with red terracotta tiles. With a mock flourish, he ushered his comrades inside.
The soft tinkling of water filled the air, coming from a small ornamental river that wound its way through a well-organised rockery. Past the entrance courtyard laid a simple one-story villa, complete with terrace. Marcus and Cassius looked at each other sidelong, noticing how Decius moved around the place with an easy familiarity. There was no doubt about it, this was Decius' home.
From within the shaded doorway came a wrinkled figure, walking with straight back and head held high. Decius moved forwards and grabbed the old man in a strong hug, before leading him over to his awestruck comrades.
The man looked them over, his clear blue eyes like ice boring into them. His wrinkled skin was tanned and leathery, and his white hair still showed evidence of a shorn military cut. He evaluated them for a few seconds, before suddenly seizing Cassius in a bear-hug. Marcus sniggered at the pained expression on his brother's face, but the mirth dropped away when he received the same embrace. The old man might have looked frail, but he was still possessed of immense wiry strength. When he spoke, it was with the sharp, stabbing voice of commanding officers everywhere.
"So, you boys are my son's comrades? I think I have to admit that he's in good hands with you lot around him." He turned back to his son. "I take it this means you're shipping out soon?"
Decius nodded. "Two weeks. Then we're sailing out to Narbo Martius, to re-enforce the 12th legion."
His father raised an eyebrow. "The 12th? In that case, when you get there, try to find a man called Brutus Maximus. Last I heard, he'd been promoted to quartermaster. He should have a few years of service left in him. Introduce yourself, and tell him that the guy who saved his balls from a Gallic hound is collecting on the debt. He'll know who you mean."
Marcus couldn't help but laugh at that remark. The icy gaze returned to rest on him, but Marcus had worked the Old man out by this point. Instead of flinching backwards, he grinned even wider. "Got any more interesting tales for the barrack room, sir?"
The man nodded, grinning with as much mirth as Marcus. "Plenty. But first, come with me to the gym. I want to see what it is they've been teaching you young upstarts nowadays."
The short swords hissed through the air, each combatant focused entirely on the movement of the folded steel. The metal made dazzling patterns in the air, but both opponents knew better than to allow their eyes to follow them. Cassius was quietly surprised at the skill with which the old man was wielding his blade, forcing the young legionnaire to spend most of his time on the defensive. He already had a single, thin cut up the side of his arm from a miss-timed parry, and was determined not to take another hit.
The blades rang off each other with short clashes, and Cassius knew that unless he pulled something soon he was going to get beaten by his best friend's dad. He saw the old man winding up for a sweeping hook, and immediately lunged forwards, locking his hilt against his opponent's. He smiled. Now the old warrior would have to pull back, and he could use the moment to get a clean stab in.
To his immense shock, his opponent didn't. Instead, he pivoted on one sturdy old ankle and delivered a distinctly unsporting kick. Cassius crumpled up, feeling all the breath leave him in a sharp rush and tears well up in his eyes. There was a touch of cold metal against his neck but for a moment he didn't care. Finally the agony subsided and he was able to deliver a high-pitched sentence.
The old soldier simply grinned down at him. "Son, you're going west. That means you'll be fighting Gauls. And trust me, they don't fight fair."
Cassius merely groaned and stayed where he was. In the shade at the side of the villa's courtyard, Decius and Marcus both winced. There was not fighting fair, and then there was that. They'd been at the Villa for nine days now, and so far none of them had managed to beat the hoary old centurion in close combat. Decius took comfort in the fact that he was unlikely to have to fight like that for real.
That had been one of the main principles hammered into his head during training. A legionnaire was not expected to be a legendary swordsman; he was expected to be a methodical butcher. The barbarians tended to fight in loose gaggles, each individual warrior excelling in swordsmanship and relying on that to get them through. It worked fine against other barbarian warriors, but the Romans had brought a whole new style of fighting to the field. Inspired by the method in which the hoplites of the Greek City-states fought, with their pike-armed phalanxes, yet recognising the inherent weakness in such an inflexible formation, the Legionnaire fought with a combination of both styles.
Roman centuries fought together in a tightly-drilled, coherent unit. Each soldier would stay behind his large shield, and wield his Gladus in a stabbing fashion, deflecting enemy blows off the shield and stabbing them in the exposed vitals. Simply, effective and proven to work, it was this method which had allowed the fledgling Roman Empire to establish itself throughout what would later become known as the Italian peninsula and beyond.
It was a style which was to save their lives many times over in the coming years.
Decius stood before the small shrine in quiet reflection. In front of him stood a simple plaque, dedicated to his mother's memory and set amongst the rockery which she had helped create. It was a simple thing, for that was the nature of Roman mourning. She wasn't truly dead, not so long as her children survived to remember her. And when they died, the memory of them would carry in it a small part of her. In this way, by remembering his mother, Decius was acknowledging the loss of all who had gone before. It was a heavy burden.
The night breeze felt cool upon his skin, and it carried with it the salty scent of the sea, along with sound of waves on the shore. From the Villa's elevated position, he could back out the thin black lines of the dockyard, extending into the waves. Tied up alongside them were the dark, blocky shapes of the transport vessels that his detachment would be boarding tomorrow. Decius looked around, letting his eyes wander over the light-studded horizon of the city of Arretium. He wondered if he'd ever have the chance to do this again, to just sit here, listening to the night breeze, taking it all in. He wondered if he'd ever survive to clap eyes upon his homeland again.
Dismissing such gloomy thoughts from his mind, he turned back to the villa. A comfortable bed awaited him, most likely the best he was going to have for a very long time.
A sleek predator. That was what the ship reminded him of, Decius realised. The ship's deck was several metres above his head, but to him it still looked as though it was prowling. He knew the class of ship, the Trireme, was originally Greek in design, but he had to hand it to the foreigners, it was as lithe and deadly as anything Roman engineers had ever come up with. The three banks of oars protruding from its flanks were currently stowed away, for there was no need for them in port.
Decius shook his head and made his way over to the gangway with Marcus and Cassius. At the base of it he met Centurion Adiele, who looked over their kit before ticking their names off of a list. The board flexed alarmingly under their feet as the three Legionnaires made their way up it to the deck of the ship, and Cassius already looked a little pale. They saluted the ship's captain, a tough looking old man in leather clothes, before making their way below decks to stow their equipment. Accommodation was a simple affair, with one part of the first level being given over to a tightly packed arrangement of wooden beds. Decius made his way to the nearest free one and dumped his leather backpack onto it. The pack contained all his equipment, including armour and helmet, and was exceedingly heavy. Were it not for the weeks of intensive training, Decius doubted he'd have been able to carry it at all.
After they'd sorted out beds, the three comrades made their way back up onto the deck, exchanging quiet greetings with the few other soldiers they met en route. Decius went over and leaned against the side-rail, staring out across the city. He picked out his father's villa, just about recognisable from being on the hill, and wondering what the old man was doing now. Probably sitting down to breakfast. He wondered if he featured in his father's thoughts at all. More than likely he did, and Decius set a silent thought winging back in the direction of his home.
I WILL return father. On the gods I swear it.
Below them, the last of the Legionaries checked off their names with the centurion, before making their way up the ramp. Adiele turned and waved up at the ship master, before regarding the soldiers. The entire century had assembled to watch the ship leave port, and they were all lined up against the rail, staring down at the man who, for the last six months, had been in total control of their lives. Without any conferring, or a word being spoken, every last man straightened up and saluted. Adiele smiled sadly and returned the gesture, before walking away.
All over the ship, sailors were finishing the last minute preparations for launch. Decius could make no sense out of the frantic flurry of movement, and simply sat down on a nearby bench to wait it out. And, with a sudden jerk, he had. The mighty ship launched forwards from its moorings and prowled out into the bay, propelled by the banks of oars and powered by the muscles of several dozen slaves. The spray whipped up around them and Decius smiled into it, happy to be underway at last.
At his side, Marcus was much glummer. Decius punched him on the shoulder and tilted his head sideways in a quizzical manner. His friend was usually so upbeat and cheerful. Marcus sighed.
"It's always been a personal fear of mine. Dying at sea, you know? I know about my soul going to Elysium, but I really don't like the whole concept of my body ending its days under ten tonnes of water."
Decius smiled. "Well, I don't think you'll have to worry about that. Check it out." He waved his hand, indicating a dozen or so merchant vessels ahead of them. "We're accompanying them to the city, and I don't think any type of pirates dumb enough to take on a full convoy with Military escort. I mean, how stupid would they have to be?"
One week later, he got his answer.
Decius was asleep when the alarm came, but months of conditional training meant that he was on his feet and pulling on his equipment before his conscious mind had even recognised the jangling call of the alarm bell. He paused for a short, horrified second before rapidly pulling on his chest-armour. Cassius spun him around and began to tighten Decius' straps while another recruit tossed him his helmet. This was one of the things that training had taught them; full armour is a bitch to get on by yourself, so the whole unit will be ready quicker if you help each other.
Decius pulled at his armour to make sure it was secure, before turning to assist Cassius in turn. All the while his mind was sifting through events. They were at sea, so this had to be another ship attacking them. The floor didn't seem to be rocking too much so presumably it was a calm night. Marcus was on the alarm tonight (and still ringing away!) and he had sharp eyes, so hopefully the enemy ship was still a fair distance away. He tightened up his metal shin guards and shoulder pieces while considering who the enemy might be.
They were on the wrong side of Italy for it to be any form of Grecian vessel, and too far north for the Carthaginians to be bothering them. There was a slight possibility that there were some Gallic ships out at the moment, but that was unlikely given that Narbo Martius was the closest port for several hundred miles and it was in roman hands. That left only one likely opponent. Pirates.
Finally Decius was ready. He thumped Cassius on the back, received a nod in return and sprinted out onto the deck. The cold night air was like a slap in the face, and the salt stung his eyes. On the upper deck he could still hear Marcus ringing for all he was worth, and looked around in an attempt to eyeball their adversary. There it was, coming up hard astern, just a darker shape against the dusk. To his shock Decius realised that the other ship was pulling in alongside the Trireme and preparing to board. Swarming all over it were the dark shapes that he knew to be pirates.
The Legionnaires had reacted with commendable haste, and there were now around twenty soldiers on deck, along with a dozen or so mariners clutching bows. More where pouring out of the sleeping quarters with every moment. With a single glance Decius summed up and evaluated the situation, and immediately an idea sprang to mind.
"Armoured line, port side now! Armoured line, come on1"
The Legionnaires around him nodded their heads and passed the command on, sending every soldier running towards the port side. The first group to get there formed up along the rail, locking their rectangular shields together to form a solid wall facing outwards. Those soldiers arriving from the quarters instantly saw what was happening and rushed to form the second file, raising their shields over the heads of the man in front of them to form a protective roof. Within seconds it paid off.
Arrows, fired from long range but still accurate, hissed down out of the sky and pattered off the wall of shields. Had it not been for the formation, they would have been falling straight into the milling ranks of men, piercing exposed necks, skewering arms. Decius staggered slightly under the impact of a particularly accurate shot that rebounded off the centre of his shield. His quick thinking had paid off and now the legionnaires were essentially immune to arrow fire. Not only that, but they were effectively providing cover for the Mariners behind them, who were rising up to take pot shots at the advancing enemy ship.
One of the pirates had clearly realised this too, for the arrows suddenly stopped and the raiding ship picked up speed. Decius spared a glance behind him to check on the merchant fleet they were supposed to be protecting, and saw that the lumbering vessels were closing together for mutual protection. Good enough. He gave his attention back to the more immediate problem.
With a mighty boom, the enemy ship hit the port flank at a shallow angle, glancing off slightly to come up alongside. There was a shouted order and around a dozen or so spiked boards came swinging down, embedding themselves in the deck and anchoring the two ships together. With a terrible yell, the pirates swarmed aboard.
Decius watched as the first man over the boards launched himself at him, swinging a heavy bill-hook. Reacting on instinct, he jabbed forwards with his shield. The heavy boss in the centre, driven by all of Decius' desperate strength, crashed into the Pirates' broad chest and sent him tumbling over the side. Decius was just congratulating himself when a heavy blow sent him staggering.
His new opponent was about a foot taller than him and wielding a massive broadsword. His bright red hair had been shaped into dreadlocks and these swung wildly as the man wound up for another blow. Decius knew he had seconds to react and threw himself flat, feeling the rush of air as the blade swooped past above him. A desperate lunge upwards embedded his gladius in the enemy's groin, and blood spurted out everywhere. The pirate screamed shrilly and Decius yelled too, carving upwards with all his strength. The huge man dropped to the floor, taking Decius' blade with him. Decius cursed and released the sword before the movement could break his wrist. He had just been effectively disarmed. There were currently several dozen ferocious pirates looking to carve his guts out, and he had lost his sword. There was a word for a situation like this.
Suddenly, every eye on the battlefield was drawn to one point. A massive shaggy giant was standing in the centre of the swarming pirates, pointing his sword to the sky and roaring in triumph. Cassius lay at his feet, a savage wound in his side pumping out blood. The pirate captain, for that was undoubtedly who he was, angled his sword downwards to deliver the killing blow. Three things happened at once. Marcus screamed in hatred and started to barge his way through the fight. The legionaries each took a step back.
And a spinning dagger flew out of the night and embedded itself in the captains left eye-socket with a solid thump. The man staggered for a moment, before toppling to the deck with a crushing finality. Two dozen pairs of piratical eyes stared in shock, before tracing the dagger's flight path back to its beginning. There they saw a young Legionnaire, covered in blood, standing with arm outstretched and eyes afire. There, they saw death.
Decius lowered his arm, well aware of the gazes of everybody upon him. His voice was a whisper, but the entire ship heard him.
"Let's go then."
The Pilum is not a weapon designed for close quarters combat. It is a weighted spear, about five feet long, and is usually employed as a throwing weapon just before the main infantry charge. But it was currently the only weapon Decius had, and his father had trained him in how to use every last piece of his kit as an effective weapon. Plus, he had rage on his side.
The first swipe opened up the jugular vein of its target, sending him toppling to the floor, before the butt of the shaft broke the neck of another. Then Decius was amongst them, fighting for all he was worth. Every movement he made, be it swivel or thrust or slash, was precisely calculated to deliver the maximum amount of damage. He used both ends of the spear to equal effect, wielding it like a quarterstaff. The butt crushed noses and feet, the spear tip opened up arteries and pierced eyeballs. In that moment, he became a god of war.
The pirates reeled and his comrades charged in, blades swinging. The butchery lasted for five minutes, and was entirely one-sided.
And when it was over, Decius planted the spear in the deck and leant against it. As his jubilant friends surrounded him, he slowly sagged down onto the floor and lay still. The broken haft of a sword protruded from his ribs.
Searing light; pain.
Dimmer light, but still painful. Slowly sliding…
More light, but bearable. Sounds; voices. He strained to hear.
"Hard…ay…lost a lot… blood."
"…fine, just a glancing…"
What were they saying? He could hear them, but only dimly. It was like the voices were a long way off. His sight was the same; he felt like he was staring down a long, smoke-filled corridor. He tried to walk along it.
"Do your best…-geon. From what…-ear, this lad was a hero…"
The voices were getting clearer. He was pretty sure that there were three of them. The one that had just spoke sounded strong and commanding, just like his father. The second was calm and smooth, with more than a hint of intelligence. The third was worried and respectful, and Decius attempted to smile at the sound of Marcus' voice.
"If he dies, I'm holding you responsible."
Decius opened his eyes fully, pleased that he could do so without pain, and attempted to speak. His voice was weak and hoarse.
"No need for that, Marcus…"
His friend spun around with a gleeful look on his face. Behind him, a tough looking man in surgeon's uniform let out a relieved sigh. The third man was hidden behind Marcus's bulk as his friend practically leapt upon him. Decius patted the man's back with as much dignity as he could muster. Not that that meant a lot.
Finally Marcus stood back up, allowing the wounded Decius to see who had been the third man in the room. One glance at the ornate armour and elaborately plumed helmet and Decius automatically attempted to jump out of the bed. Thick arms, almost like tree trunks, pinned him back down and the same commanding voice that he'd heard earlier whispered in his ear.
"Easy there, lad. The surgeon will have me gutted if you kill yourself trying to salute me."
Decius automatically obeyed, lying back down again. Above him, Flavius Julius, General of Rome and master of the Julii family smiled. His face was browned and weather-beaten, and one of his cheeks bore a long, diagonal scar. To Decius his eyes looked… almost parental. Despite the grey flecks that were slowly emerging from his head, he still looked like the Vanquishing hero that he was.
"There now, that wasn't so hard, was it? I appreciate the sentiment, but you have to learn that I'm going to be around too much for you to salute every time."
Decius frowned. Before he could stop himself, he blurted out.
"But that's not what my father…"
The General smiled. "I hear that your father was in the army too, son. What was his name?"
"Centurion Gauis Maximus, sir."
To his utter surprise and shock the General suddenly boomed with laughter. He sat back on the empty bed next to him and clutched at his sides in mirth. In between his laughter, he managed to gasp out.
"So… that scoundrel's still kicking? I'm not surprised, he always was a stubborn son of a…" With that he started to laugh again.
Decius wondered what his face must look like right now. He imagined that Marcus would have many fine impressions of it for the barrack room, but he just couldn't help himself. Apparently the General noticed his look, for he suddenly became serious and grasped Decius by the arm.
"Son, I'm honoured to have you in my Legion. Back when I was a young fool, full of myself and convinced I was immortal, your father saved my life. Saved me from a Gallic arrow during the siege of Massila, when I thought it a good idea to make my horse rear up dramatically. That brought it home to me how I was just as mortal as the next man, and as a result I'm still here today. I got your old man an honourable discharge and a villa, but I still feel in his debt. Maybe now I'll have the chance to pay him off altogether, eh?"
Before Decius could piece together the implications of that last statement, the General had suddenly stood up and strode out of the room. The last thing he saw before exhaustion claimed him was Marcus grinning at him.