The Centurio Immotalis half dozed in his saddle as they approached the bridge over the Danuvius River. He’d decided to push on and hit their fort instead of camping outside the empire’s borders for another night. Although the day’s march had been stiff, his men were in fine spirits as they approached the river that meant they were only a few more miles from their beds.
“Princeps Primus Centurio?” a young soldier asked.
“Boy, you don’t need to use the full title,” barked the grizzled officer riding next to Lucius.
“Sorry, sir. Centurio Ferrata. Legatus Pisakar is waiting for us just past the bridge.”
“Hmm? What?” Lucius shook his head to clear the haze of his nap. “Pisakar? What’s he doing here?”
“I don’t know, Centurio. They just sent me back to inform you,” the young man said.
“Just thinking out loud, Decanus…” Lucius searched for the name of the young man he’d recently approved for promotion to leader of his tent group.
“Martininius, Sir,” Martininius said, aiding his Centurio.
“Decanus Martininius, thanks. Return to your station. Actually, hold. I’ll join you and find out what Pisakar is up to myself.” Turning to the Primus Pilus riding next to him, he said, “Tinkomaros, keep the men marching. You’re in charge.”
“Aye, Centurio,” the gruff Gaul replied.
Between his nod of assent and the breeze, his long mustache tails fluttered in the wind. Although Lucius typically stuck to the shaved face and short hair look that was in fashion when he joined the legions under the reign of imperator Traianus, he’d let his hair and beard grow out quite a bit longer than he had in ages, bordering on unkempt. He allowed his men a certain sense of freedom when it came to their grooming—as long as they were clean, they could wear their hair and facial hair anyway they liked as befit the Empire’s elite legion. His men were allowed to have their quirks and eccentricities, they’d earned them.
Lucius rubbed his hand through his shaggy, dark brown hair and pulled his horse out of line and behind the decanus, the old gelding replying to his commands smoothly. They rode at a sedate pace along the line of Lucius’s marching men, each nodding to their respected leader as he rode past.
“Remind me, son, where are you from?” Lucius asked, making small talk with his newly minted platoon leader.
“Massilia, sir,” the handsome young soldier replied, his face still containing the softness of youth despite the intense training of the legions.
“What did your father do in Massilia?
“He was a clerk, sir.”
“Not a legionnaire?”
“No, sir,” Martininius replied.
“How’d you end up in the legions?”
“I didn’t fancy quills and parchment for a lifetime.”
Lucius let out a bark of laughter. “Fair enough. My father joined so he wouldn’t be forced to toil in the soil outside his village in Belgica.” Lucius smiled fondly, remember his father and his stories. “He said he moved more dirt in the legions than he ever would have as a farmer… Anyway, what do you think of the Lugii?”
“They seem a fine people, sir.”
“Ah, politic answer. Certainly a safe option. Cautiously polite but interpretable as a small slight. Certainly a far cry from the people of Massilia.”
The city on the Gallicum Sea had been a colony of the Hellenes before linking its star to the Roman Republic five hundred years ago when they aided the republic against Hannibal Barca.
“Yes, sir. Have you been to Massilia?”
“I’ve passed through a few times over the years. It’s a whole other world that the forests of Germania.”
“Yes, sir. The forests…” He seemed to be formulating a thought. “They’re dark. Even in the full light of Sol. They’re almost sorrowful.”
The thoughtful and slightly poetic statement from the young soldier intrigued Lucius. Most of his men were there because they were the elite legionnaires of the empire, the best fighting men in the world. Lucius could understand why the young man’s centurion had singled him out for his first promotion.
“Sorry, sir, if I spoke out of turn.”
Lucius waved Martininius’s concern aside. “Don’t worry about it. Continue. Please.”
“It was just…when I could tune out the sound of the march, the wind sighed through the branches. They almost seemed weary at our passing.”
Lucius raised an eyebrow. “How much do you know about the history of this area?”
“Not much, sir.”
“We’re at a cross roads. These woods have known blood. The Getae, Dacians, Sarmatians, Macromannians, Vandals, Goths, Romans, Gauls, and probably hundreds of peoples I’ve never even heard of, we’ve all bled in these wood. All left the bones of our fallen in these woods. For centuries upon centuries. I’ve spilled my share of it over the years too, more than my share if truth be told.
“Those woods know me. They’ve long stopped fearing my arrival, instead only greeting it with weariness for what I might do. They do feel sorrow. They’d prefer to drink of the spring rains. Instead, I feed them blood.”
They rode in silence for a while. The dark German woods always made Lucius feel maudlin. The tall pines were nothing like the trees of his youth in far away Belgica where the leaves rustled with laughter, forgetting the far gone wars of Caesar’s conquests of Gaul.
“Sir, why didn’t the Lugii accept protection in the empire like the rest of the Vandals?”
“Some men don’t want to bow to the Imperator. They’d rather take their chances and be free,” Lucius replied.
The hooves of their horses clattered over the stone bridge as they pulled in front of the column. At the far end of a bridge, a giant of man waited, standing and holding the reigns of his horse. He removed his helmet shaped like a roaring lion’s head, revealing dark black skin, and a shaved head. He raised a hand in greeting.
“Well, Decanus Martininius, thank you for the conversation. You may return to your unit.”
The decanus banged his fist into his chest plate and extended a crisp salute to Lucius. “Yes, Centurio Ferrata.” He wheeled his horse around and returned to his commander to report in. Lucius nudged his gelding into a trot. The horse snorted and shook its head.
“Quit your complaining, Cicero. It’s been easy duty this time around,” Lucius said to his pony.
Pisakar, seeing Lucius trotting towards him, mounted up and waved his detachment to fall in behind them as they passed.
“Hamilcar, bring the rest of the men home. You’re in charge,” Pisakar yelled over his shoulder as he brought his stout pony up next to Lucius’s mount.
“So what’d the free Vandals have to say?” Pisakar asked.
Lucius was quiet for a bit. “Ariaric and his Tervingi are moving south…in numbers.”
“What does ‘in numbers’ mean?”
“Judging by the poorly contained panic of the Lugii? The whole damned tribe. Thousands upon thousands, Pisakar.”
Pisakar whistled his dismay. “What drives them? It’ll be winter in the mountains and steppes.”
“Benetrax wouldn’t say, specifically, but that scared him most of the all. Best I could surmise is ‘demons in the night.’”
Shaking his head, Pisakar let rip a steady stream of curses.
“That’s the job we accepted when we took our oath to the Black Legion.”
“No, it’s not that, Lucius. It’s just a poor time for the Imperator to be calling you off the border.”
Lucius perked up and turned his head to his friend and second in command. “What?”
“You didn’t think I came all the way up here just to welcome you across the bridge? Constantius has deigned to acknowledge your existence after nearly thirty years. There’s a messenger waiting for you at the castrum.”
“He and his entourage arrived four days ago.”
“Well, I guess we should go see what our Imperator wants.”
“You mean ‘Dominus Noster’?” Pisakar said, loading the title with sarcasm.
Lucius could hear the eyeroll of his friend. Like Lucius, Pisakar didn’t care for the new stylings of the new breed of imperators. They’d shed the title of “Princeps,” first among Romans, and sought to elevate themselves to nearly divine status while living.
“Yes. Let’s go see what the servant of ‘Our Lord’ wants with the Black Legion.”
Lucius kicked Cicero into a canter. The horse grunted and kicked out behind him before responding to his rider’s commands.
“Lucius, it’s time to put that old bastard out to pasture.”
“I’d watch out if I were you when we get back to the fort. He’ll be aiming to bite you after that comment. He still does what’s asked of him.” Luke patted Cicero’s neck fondly.
“Aye, he’s a smart beast, no doubt, but it’s getting harder for him. He’s not immortal.”
Lucius caught the pointed look his friend directed at him out of the corner of his eye. He sighed and stroked the horse’s neck. “You’re probably right, Pisakar. He’s probably as stubborn as I am.”
“That he is, my friend, but it’s time for him to rest and enjoy his days. I have a feeling we’ve some tough campaigning in our future, and I’m not sure the old bastard has another one in him. He’ll soldier on until he drops, but why not let him enjoy some time getting fat on easy grass? He’s done his duty, let him muster out.”
The two men road in silence, the only sound the beating hooves of their horses and the detachment of guards riding behind them at a discreet distance. Pisakar was right. Lucius had kept Cicero around longer than was standard for the war ponies his legion and its cavalry units maintained. Cicero was one of the smartest and most cantankerous horses he’d ever ridden in the two centuries he’d commanded his legion. The old bastard had been his friend and steadfast companion since the herd master selected him to be Lucius’s prime mount nearly a decade earlier.
“He should have been retired years ago,” Sakar added.
“You could say the same of me.”
Pisakar laughed; the deep rumbling sound of his friend’s laugh always brought a smile to Lucius’s face. “You should have been dead almost two hundred years ago, my friend. But that’s what happens when you put yourself in the way of the gods; they find a way to use you beyond your time.”
Again, Pisakar was right. At nearly 245-years-old, Lucius had outlived everyone he knew and would probably bury all his current friends. Talk of his age did nothing to better his mood after leaving the tall, dark lonely forests on the other side of the Danuvius.
In contrast, the village of camp followers and the families of the legionnaires he commanded bustled with activity, laughter and yells filling the air as they rode through. While the men of the Roman legions couldn’t marry during their time under the eagle, nothing prevented them from having a companion outside the legion. Some men even started families who followed them from post to post until they mustered out and could sign the marriage contract.
The glint of sun off steel caught his eye as a young man in armor wearing the black of Lucius’s legion stepped out of a small hut, a woman following him. She pulled him back into her arms, laughing when he bumped into her, nearly knocking her down before wrapping his arms around her for a passionate kiss. Lucius sighed, letting his eyes linger on the young couple.
Over the two plus centuries Lucius had served under the eagle, He’d had his share of dalliances, but had never committed to anyone knowing his contract with the empire would probably never end. As his legion moved around the empire, if he met someone, he’d eventually have to move on when the empire’s need to fight foreign enemies, living or undead, came in. His men joked he was married to his legion.
Once they crested the last hill before their fort, Pisakar raised his arm and signaled to the guards behind them. Spurring their horses forward, they closed ranks around the leader of their legion and his second in command, one of them racing forward to alert the fort to their general’s return.
“Legatus Pisakar, inform our guest I’ll meet with him first thing in the morning after I’ve broken my fast. I think I’ll spend some time in the baths tonight. Have food and wine prepared for after, you can join me and update me on what’s been going on while I was gone.”
“Aye, Centurio Ferrata.” Pisakar saluted and split off from their detachment to carry out his orders when they passed through the gates of their fortress.
Dismounting, Lucius handed Cicero’s reigns to his groom. The Sarmatian was one of the few people Lucius’s gelding didn’t try to regularly bite or kick, probably because he was always slipping the gelding treats.
“How did the old brute do, Centurio?” Marcellus asked.
“He grumbled a lot, but he responded.”
Marcellus laughed. “So the usual?”
Lucius nodded. “Give him some extra grain tonight and mix in some honey and apples.”
“Yes, Centurio.” Marcellus led Cicero off to be groomed and rubbed down before his evening meal.
Lucius took his time with his breakfast the next morning. He knew the Imperator’s emissary was waiting, but he enjoyed the pettiness of forcing him to cool his heels after he’d passed up meeting with him the previous evening.
“Anything else, sir?” his valet asked.
“No. I’ve kept him waiting long enough.” Lucius stood and walked toward his armor stand.
His valet lifted the lorica off the stand and held it open for Lucius. As the valet settled the segmented armor on Lucius’s shoulders, Lucius absentmindedly wondered what the man who’d set himself at the top of the empire wanted of him after all this time. Flavius Valerius Contantius had risen to power under his father’s auspices when Diocletian selected him to be one of his four co-rulers after dividing the empire in half for two co-emperors with two successors under them.
When his father died, his’s father’s legions declared Constantius his successor and emperor of the west. Through several civil wars, Constantius had eliminated his co-emperors and competitors to perch himself and his family atop the empire’s power structure, going so far as to establish a new capital in the east and naming it after himself—Constantinopolis. In all that time, Constantius had never called on Lucius and his Black Legion to join him nor sent so much as an emissary or letter acknowledging the existence of the elite legion charged with protecting the empire from the demons of the night—the drinkers of blood.
While it never had put Lucius in a difficult position of having to deny the Imperator his direct support, he still felt insulted at the lack of regard. He’d watched the borders of the empire for over two centuries, protecting Roma and her people from enemies both human and undead.
“I think the bear cloak, sir,” the valet said after cinching the front of the armor closed.
“It’s not that cold.”
“No, but it’s most impressive, especially with Marcus Aurelius Antoninus’s seal on it.”
Lucius nodded. The black cloak with its bear hair running down the shoulders and upper back added more bulk to his already sizable appearance. While he hadn’t grown as tall as his father who was tall even for a Gaul, Lucius was six feet tall and broad.
Settling the cloak over his gladius, he took his helmet from the valet. Like Lucius, the armor, helmet, and gladius were antiques. He had a matching spatha, the longer sword that was the standard for Constantius’s modernized infantry, but preferred the added continuity the old weapon added to his appearance. He was the Centurio Immortalis; he needed to look the part.
When he approached the camp’s headquarters, the legionnaires on guard duty snapped to attention, saluting crisply as he passed. Pisakar had selected some of the most decorated of his Black Legion to further display the Legion’s prowess. Pisakar was the best second he’d ever worked with and a trusted friend. He always took care of the more bureaucratic or ceremonial details that Lucius had grown disinterested with over time. Of all the Legionary commanders in the Empire, Lucius was probably the least formal, reverting to his “barbarian” upbringing as a Belgic Gaul growing up in the territory of the Nervii tribe some eight and half centuries after the founding of Roma.
Pisakar met him inside the door. “The new Imperator thinks he knows you and can woo you.”
He always referred to the emperor as “new,” refusing to acknowledge his nearly thirty year reign until he paid proper respect to the Black Legion as emperors since its founding under Traianus and Hadrianus had.
Lucius saw what Pisakar meant as soon as he stepped through the door. A man with gray-blonde hair abruptly stood, saluting Lucius.
“Princeps Primus Centurio, Sir!” the man shouted along with his salute.
Lucius, before sitting behind his desk, gave the Imperator’s emissary a once over. He was tall and lean, perhaps a bit taller than Lucius. The man had the bearing of a German. At some point his nose had been broken and set poorly; it jutted off to the side about halfway down. Like Lucius, he favored the old style segmented lorica. Few used it today, it having fallen out of favor over half a century ago. He held a helmet under his left arm, the crest of a Centurion running transverse. Constantius had chosen to send a Centurion instead of some higher leader or diplomat. Something about his face tugged at Lucius’s memory.
The Centurion sat. Pisakar took up a position behind and to the side of Lucius, serving as guard and aid-de-camp during the meeting. And although one of the lower officers usually served in this task, Pisakar wanted to snoop. He cleared his throat to let Lucius know he was disappointed in him for not making the centurio stand for the meeting.
“Thank you, Princeps Primus Centurio,” the centurion said.
Lucius nodded, acknowledging the man. “And please, address me as Centurio.”
“If you don’t mind me saying, you look familiar. Have we met before or is age blending all faces into the familiar?” Lucius asked, tone airy and bemused.
“I can’t speak for your memory, sir, but in my case it may be both.”
Lucius cocked his head to the side, an eyebrow quirking up. “How so, Centurio? How are you called?”
“Segomaros, sir, It’s a family name.”
“That’s a name I haven’t heard in a while…” Lucius mused.
“I doubt you’d remember me, sir. The last time we met, I was a snot-nosed miles fresh out of training. I fought alongside the Black near Mongotiacum.”
“That was about thirty years ago.”
“Aye, sir. I feel them more than some days.”
“And the name?”
“It’s a family name. An ancestor of mine served with you back when you were with the XXX Ulpia Victrix, sir.”
“Shit, Sego? Gods, that was a long time ago.” Squinting a bit to blur the edges of Segamoris’s face, Lucius nodded. “You’ve something about him in your face. The chin and the cheeks.” He turned to address Pisakar. “Segomaris enlisted the same time I did. We went through training together. He got promoted to signifier when I was promoted to Tessararius.”
“How old were you, Centurio?” Pisakar as ked.
“Nineteen, I think. It was the first year of Traianus’s second Dacian war. Sometime I’ll tell you how I led, with the aid of Centurio Segomaris’s great great great however many grandfather, a half centuria out of an ambush and rescued the Vexillation I was assigned to.”
Turning back to Centurio Segomaris, Lucius smiled as the color drained from the Centurio’s face. He could hear Pisakar’s deep chuckle behind him.
“I don’t think the Centurio quite believed why the Imperator sent him,” Pisakar said.
Lucius chuckled. “And that brings us around to the point of this meeting. What news from our Imperator, Centurio?”
Segomaris took a second to collect himself and reached into an oilskin bag, pulling out a sealed folio. Pisakar stepped from his position behind Lucius and retrieved it from the Centurio, inspecting it before turning it over to Lucius.
“I’m to wait for your reply and return immediately, sir,” Centurio Segomaris added.
Lucius broke the seal on the folio, pulling out folded papyrus, again, sealed. He brought his pugio to hand and carefully ran the dagger blade along the papyrus’s edge, popping the wax seal, careful to preserve the Chi rho surrounded by a laurel wreath that Constantius had used since his victory at the Battle of Milvian Bridge twenty years ago, earning his undisputed status as Imperator of the western half of the empire.
Lucius unfolded the papyrus and Lucius scanned over the message from the newest self-styled “Dominus,” Lord of the Roman Empire. “Well, I’m to report to Constantinopolis to ‘consult’ with the Dominus on matters concerning the Goths and Sarmatians.”
“When?” Pisakar asked.
“‘At my earliest convenience,’ it says.”
“Immediately,” Lucius confirmed. “Legatus Pisakar…”
Pisakar drew up to full attention at the use of his title by his commanding officer.
“See to the comfort of the Centurio and his men for one more night.” He turned to address the Centurio. “You’ll depart at first light with your message for Dominus Constantius.”
The centurio stood up and saluted. “Sir!”
“Centurio Hamilcar,” Pisakar called. When a man wearing a centurion’s crest stepped into the office, Pisakar issued his orders. “See to Centurio Segomaris and his men. Have their supplies restocked and ready to march out at first light.”
Hamilcar saluted and stepped out of the office; Segomaris followed him.
Lucius reached behind him and pulled out a large roll. Setting it on his desk, he unrolled the large map of the northern region encompassing the territory along the Danuvius.
“Pisakar, I want you to take the legion to…” He ran his finger over the blue line of the river. “Oescus. I want you close in case I need you. That’s central enough we can go east or west before crossing the northern border into wild country.”
Piskar looked over Lucius’s shoulder checking out the small mark on the northern border of Dacia, near the western border of Maesia.
“You don’t think he’ll send us north from here?” Pisakar asked.
“I’m not sure. I don’t know the man, only what I’ve seen him do. I’d rather not gamble and have you out of place if we need to hurry. I’ll need a proper escort.”
“Two Cohorts?” Pisakar asked. “The First Cohort and the Eighth?”
“Yes. Give me the First…” Lucius hesitated, thinking over which other cohort he’d want to take. “And the Sixth.”
“The Young Men?” Pisakar sounded doubtful. “The Eighth is a good match for the First…”
Typically referred to as the “Finest of the Young Men,” the Sixth Cohort contained the best of the younger legionnaires and newer recruits, those deemed the best fighters and groomed to fill the positions in the lead cohorts.
Lucius stood up. “It’s our job to season them in all aspects of legionary duty, including kissing the ass of Imperators. Besides, I don’t want to take both of our best cohorts. I want to make sure you’re manned. While I’m thinking about it, I’m going to give you an order to grab a couple cohorts from I Adiutrix at Brigetio. Also, send to the II Italica at Lauriacum for two, and…” His finger settled on another dot. “Two from the IV Flavia Felix at Singidunum. And, take two from the XIV at Carnuntum. Don’t take everyone’s best, but don’t let them pawn off their weakest men. I’m going to need to trust their abilities where I suspect we’re going.”
“I know the drill. They’re going to be underpowered either way. These new ‘Domini’ have been siphoning off the cream of the crop from the border legions for half a century now. Do you want me to notify Quietus that you’re leaving Vindabona?”
“Organize and train them as you see fit. You know I trust you to make those decisions.” Lucius scratched his jaw. “I’ll take care of Quietus. Give me a good chance to try out the new horse they want to replace Cicero with.”
“He’s not going to be happy about you moving out of the neighborhood. The X Gemina is a fine legion with a storied history, but they’ve grown a bit complacent with you stationed here.”
“Yes. It’ll give them a chance to get some exercise. Quietus is a good man. He’ll be able to organize this section of the border. The other legion commanders will listen to him.”
Pisakar nodded, rubbing a hand from front to back over the deep brown skin of his bald head. “If there’s nothing else, I’ll make preparations.”
“Actually, you haven’t filled the open position for my current secretary, have you?”
“Detach Decanus Martininius from his current assignment and move him to my staff. Looks like he won’t quite escape quills and parchment, yet.”
Pisakar raised an eyebrow but didn’t seek clarification. “Martininius?”
“The scout who was escorting me to the bridge.”
“Ah, I’ll see to it.” Pisakar was used to Lucius’s sometimes odd orders and rarely asked questions unless it mattered or he was curious. This qualified as neither to Pisakar.
“That’ll be all.” Lucius sat pouring over the map in front of him and didn’t notice when Pisakar left to fulfill his orders.
Lucius stood stiffly outside Dominus Constantius’s throne room in his finest black tunica, his armor polished and swords’ hilts gleaming. Like when he’d met with the imperator’s emissary, he wore the bulky black cloak decorated with black bear fur and the insignia of Imperator Marcus Aurelius blazoned in gold on two medallions joined by a chain.
He carried his helmet with its long, flowing black transverse centurion’s crest under his arm. Behind him and to each side, two of his more decorated legionnaires stood sentry, holding signa, one with the legion’s emblem and one with Lucius’s personal emblem. On the legion’s banner, the various commendations the legion had earned dangled thick and nearly to the ground. Lucius’s banner, similarly decorated, displayed all the personal commendations he’d earned from Roma’s various imperators. And though he’d served many, he always kept the first ones he’d earned under Traianus and Hadrianus at the top, those he’d earned before taking on his true life’s mission.
He wasn’t alone in waiting on the man who’d styled himself the empire’s lord. A small entourage of armored warriors, Sarmatian by gear, hovered around two women in Roman dresses. However, unlike Roman women, their arms were covered in long, elaborately woven sleeves. The one who seemed to be in charge, based on everyone else’s bearing, wore sleeves with a black and white zig pattern that danced over her arms.
From her ears and neck, elaborately designed, jewel-encrusted gold jewelry dangled. Her brown hair had a slight red cast when she shifted her head, light skipping across her slightly wild curls. Despite their efforts, the thickness of her hair was barely contained in combs and chains scattered across her head.
Across her aqualine nose, she had the straight line of a scar silvered with age. Laugh lines creased her cheeks, radiating out from the slightly upturned corners of her mouth. Even now in the cool light inside Constantius’s new palace, she squinted slightly as if riding across the sunny steppes. She had the faint wrinkle lines spreading in a small burst around the corner of her dark gray eyes as if her squint reflected the sun’s own rays.
A soft soled boot peeked out from the hem of her dress, the leather intricately embroidered in a riot of colors. Despite the Roman dress, he could practically feel the winds of the steppes coming off her. He guessed she probably had a dagger or two scattered about on her person, and based on her escort and how she held herself, the right to carry them in the presence of the Imperator. He doubted she was one of the tame Sarmatians the various Imperators had allowed to settle in the empire and provide troops to the legions.
He caught himself staring at her, face flushing, he studiously found something else to look at. As he turned his head, he thought he saw a smirk cross over her face.
Lucius was glad he’d allowed his valet to fuss over his appearance today. His beard and hair were neatly trimmed and lightly oiled. The hair at his temples had a light salting in his dark brown hair, the short, oiled curls on top rising like cresting waves, some breaking. He figured clipped in the traditional military fashion would be best when being presented to Constantius.
His eyes, dark brown, were surrounded with the same wrinkles as hers, only a bit deeper. Unlike her, the skin near his mouth lacked the tell tale wrinkles created by a sunny disposition. Nor were they marked by the lines of a sour or dour disposition. His eyes had drifted back toward the Sarmatian woman and her entourage.
He couldn’t figure out what tribe of the many tribes orbiting the western parts of the steppes closest to the Empire’s border they might be affiliated with. Most Sarmatians favored using stags and birds of prey as their emblems. He didn’t recognize the wolf that seemed to be in abundance in their decorations and insignia.
Again, his gaze settled on her face. She radiated power and danger, both in the small movements of her body as well as in the body language of those standing around her. He chalked up his interest in them to boredom or the light reflecting off their abundance of gold ornamentation.
The woman must have felt his eyes on her. She turned her head slowly to the side, making eye contact with him and quirking an eyebrow up in challenge.
He was saved when one of his legionnaires coughed to draw his attention to the bureaucrat standing in front of him.
“Centurio?” the man said.
“Princeps Primus Centurio,” barked one of his legionnaires in way of both ensuring Lucius’s attention and to remind the official to use Lucius’s proper title. His men would brook no disrespect to their commander.
The man, his eyes shifting nervously to the two legionnaires flanking Lucius bowed deeply before Lucius. “Princeps Primus Centurio Ferrata? Dominus Constantius will see you now.”
Lucius nodded, but couldn’t help looking back towards the band of Sarmatians. He was disappointed to see they’d disappeared in the minute the officious little man had distracted him. He turned back to the official and gestured for the man to lead the way in. The official bobbed his head, a flash of metal catching Lucius’s eye. The man wore a chi rho on a chain around his neck—the symbol favored by the Dominus and those who followed their Christ god. As he walked to the grand doors leading into Constantius’s audience chamber, he gestured towards two guards blocking the closed door.
After speaking with one of the guards, the bureaucrat turned to speak to Lucius. “My apologies, sir. The other delegation is being announced at the moment. The Dominus will let us know when he’s ready for you.”
Lucius nodded, standing rigidly, glancing over to where the Sarmatians had been only moments earlier. The sound of the doors opening drew him back to alertness. The official nodded at the guards as they stepped out of the way, pushing the doors open the rest of the way.
Lucius’s legionnaires snapped to attention, sending their gear and banners jingling under the heavy decorations. He followed the bureaucrat. When the official stopped a respectful distance from the imperator, Lucius’s escorts both took a couple more steps forward, placing them one step in front of Lucius.
The little bureaucrat turned to Lucius. “Shall I announce you?”
“I will announce him,” said Optio Pertinax.
The bureaucrat nodded. The optio rested the base of his banner near his foot.
“Princeps Civitatus, Princeps Senatus, Imperator Constantius, may I present Princeps Primus Centurio Lucius Silvanius Ferrata, first among centuriones, leader of the Black Legion, beloved of Mithras, a soldier of Sol Invictus, and Luna’s lone spear against the darkness.” The optio’s voice boomed throughout the audience chamber, and probably throughout this quadrant of the city.
At the naming of Mithras, Luna, and Sol Invictus, a man with wild hair and a shaggy beard standing in the position of an adviser bristled. Constantius’s face was inscrutable. Lucius, when the optio had finished his list, bowed respectfully.
At the base of the dais, the Sarmatians fanned out around the women they’d shown such deference to in the waiting room. Her soldiers stood behind her, arrayed a safe distance away but still close enough to protect their mistress. A platoon of the imperator’s guards stood sentry near the foreigners in case they were needed. The other woman was seated next to her mistress, but slightly back in a position of subservience.
“Dominus Constantius, it is a pleasure to be called before you. May I apologize for my optio’s impertinence. Those of us in the Black Legion are an old fashioned lot. How may I serve the empire?”
Lucius had chosen to use Constantius’s preferred title while allowing his optio’s display to let the imperator know that the Black Legion was respectful but not servile. The second Sarmatian woman spoke quietly to her mistress, translating what she’d heard.
“Old fashioned, indeed?” Constantius chuckled. “You come before me wearing antique armor, wielding antique weapons, using antique titles.”
“I am an antique, Dominus,” Lucius said.
“He lies, Dominus,” the hairy man whispered harshly, ensuring it was loud enough to be heard by Lucius, his men, and everyone else.
The jangle of the the banner to his left alerted him that the arms of the legionnaire shook with anger. Lucius held his left hand up casually to remind his men to be calm. He’d have to speak with the optio about who he selected for such duties in the future.
“On occasion, but never about my accomplishments, Dominus,” Lucius replied crisply to the imperator, an edge seeping into his voice as he ignored the man standing behind the the leader of the Roman Empire.
He wouldn’t speak out in such manner unless he knew it would be condoned. Contantius was testing Lucius and his temperament. He maintained eye contact with the imperator, studiously avoiding the burning gaze of the zealot standing behind him. Constantius chuckled at a Lucius’s response.
“Indeed. My advisor, Eusebius of Nicomedia, believes you’re an impostor. No man can live for two hundred years.”
“Two hundred and forty five, I believe. I lose count sometimes. It’s been a long time.”
“He comes to spread lies about false gods, Dominus.” Again, Eusebius hissed his whisper for the room to hear.
“I never lie about whom I serve, Dominus.”
“Do you serve me?” Constantius asked, an eyebrow raised.
“I serve Roma, Dominus.”
Constantius laughed, waving Eusebius back for the moment. “A good answer without committing too much.”
Constantius stood slowly and walked toward Lucius and his men. The man who’d spent sixty years walking the empire, now did it with a bit of a limp. Lucius couldn’t tell if it was an old injury or simply age. The imperator had spent most of those years leading Romans against other Romans to secure the empire for his sole rule. A guard drifted behind Constantius at a respectful distance.
“I’ve heard some of the tales about Princeps Primus Centurio Ferrata.”
Stepping to the side, he looked over the banner held by the optio, inspecting the commendations and trophies attached to the legionary banner. He made an impressed noise and stepped towards the tessesarius to inspect Lucius’s personal commendations.
“Ah, here it is. Traianus? Dacia, correct?”
“Yes, Dominus. His second war against the Dacians. I earned two promotions and three phylarae and my appointment to the cohort that would become the Black Legion under Hadrianus.”
“Ah, yes. I see his here.” He looked back to his throne, addressing Eusebius. “If he is an impostor, he’s got his details down.”
Lucius kept a neutral expression on his face. He’d been in the presence of too many imperators of various degrees of respect and belligerence to allow himself to betray his annoyance at the nearly thirty years of disrespect Constantius had shown in ignoring him.
“Not too many from my predecessors of the previous century.”
“Most weren’t imperator long enough to bother calling on me.”
“I’m surprised they didn’t try to win you to their cause,” Constantius said.
“When I swore my oath to Hadrianus before forming the Black Legion, I gave my word to never take part in the internal wars of imperators. Besides, I had more important duties.”
“Ah, yes. The mysterious night demons you swore an oath to Mithras to defeat.”
“I’m not sure if I should admire your steadfast devotion to your duty or wonder you an imbecile.”
Lucius blinked, his face a marble carving.
Constantius continued, “The ‘immortal’ man. Feared by many, beloved of the legions—you could have marched your legion to Roma, and they’d all joined your banner. You could have been imperator.”
“I never wanted to be,” Lucius replied. He held the imperator’s gaze, his face a mask of calm, a slight chill in his eyes the only sign he was displeased with the imperator’s words.
The sound of a woman’s laughter broke the tension. Turning toward the sound, Lucius saw the Sarmatian woman laughing. The free sound of it lifted a smile to his lips as her gaze locked with his. He gave her a nearly imperceptible nod.
“Ah, our guests,” Conanstantius said, turning his back to Lucius and returning to his throne but not sitting. “Centurio, if I may address you so to save the extra words?”
Lucius nodded. “As it pleases you, Dominus.”
“May I present the ambassador from the Roxolani chief, Marpesia, her translator, and her honor guard.”
Her name was Marpesia. The sound of her name rolled pleasantly into his ears. She rose and bowed toward Lucius. She spoke to Lucius in her dialect of the tongue the Sarmatians shared. He only caught a few words of it, knowing mostly the dialect of the Iazyges tribe that resided near the borders he’d haunted off and on for a large part of his time defending the borders and not even knowing that terribly well.
“Before I speak to you the words of my mistress, may I ask your preference for Latin or the tongue of the Hellenes?” the translator asked in heavily accented Latin.
“I speak both with facility. Please choose whichever is your better language,” Lucius replied.
The translator nodded and switched to Greek. “My mistress is most pleased to meet an illustrious warlord and leader of men such as the ‘Centurio Immortalis.’” She used the unofficial Latin title most knew him by inside and out of the empire. “She knows of your reputation with the gladius and as the commander of warriors, but didn’t realize you were also a man skilled at not showing offense at the insults of both imperators and little, prattling men.”
Eusebius audibly scowled at the Sarmatian’s leader. “Impertinent witch…” he mumbled too loudly.
Marpesia slowly turned her attention to him, leveling a withering glare at him before dismissing him and returning her attention to Lucius. She spoke again.
“If we can avoid the buzzing of blow flies, perhaps I may continue,” the translator said. “To you, Centurio Immortalis, I bring the respectful greetings of the Roxolani people.”
Marpesia bowed deeply before continuing.
“We bring word of your ancient enemy, the enemy of the living, the enemy of the light—the drinkers of blood.”
Eusebius grumbled, but kept his tongue in check. The powerful Sarmatian woman intimidated the man.
Marpesia held Lucius’s gaze. As a cloud shifted outside, a beam of sunshine fell on her, setting the red in her hair afire. He thought he could see blue or green flecks in her gray eyes. His optio clearing his throat alerted him that he’d gotten lost for a moment, not hearing the words the Imperator had said.
“…anyway, they say these ‘drinkers of blood’ are behind the movement of the Goths towards our border.”
Recovering, Lucius feigned a light cough, covering his mouth to give himself a moment to collect himself. Now was not the time to be distracted by a pair of pretty eyes, no matter how intensely they held his gaze. He’d seen many in his day, including on beautiful women, though he rarely did more than look. His men joked his only woman was the Black Legion.
“I’ve heard similar news from the free Lugii, Dominus. Just before your emissary invited me to Byzantium… My apologies, Dominus. Constantinopolis. He said Ariaric is bringing the whole tribe south.”
Marpesia listened to her translator as she translated Lucius’s Greek. Her jaw set, she nodded rigidly at Lucius then Constantius.
“My mistress says this matches what news she’s obtained from our northern tribes and contacts.”
Constantius, having returned to his throne, spoke up. “The Roxolani wish alliance with the us against the Goths, but only on the condition I send the Black Legion to fight alongside them against the creatures they claim drive the Goths into their lands.”
Lucius nodded respectfully to Marpesia. “It’s a small price, then, Dominus, since you’ve little use for the Black.”
Constantius chuckled. “Indeed, a small price. Centurio Ferrata, you and your legion will accompany the Roxolani out of the empire where they’ll escort you through their lands. You and the Roxolani will form the hammer to my anvil.”
Hearing his name and the tone of command, Lucius straightened to attention and bowed when he received his orders. “Yes, Dominus.”
“You’re dismissed. My Magister Militum will send for you when he’s ready to discuss strategies.” Turning to the Sarmatian delegation, he addressed their leader. “Marpesia, you have your Black Legion. We will finalize our negations at a later date.”
Waiting for the translation, her steely gaze held Constantius’s, her face tightly guarded against revealing anything. She nodded, standing. The rest of her delegation came to attention. Marpesia bowed and turned to her people, issuing a few curt orders.
Seeing that the emperor had already forgotten them, Lucius saluted, turned, and walked towards the massive doors, his escort following along at a respectful pace. As he approached, the doors opened and he marched through without stopping. Once he was out of sight of the throne room, he swept a hand through his hair, loosening his jaw muscles before he broke a tooth.
“Your orders, sir?” Optio Pertinax asked.
“Back to the barracks for now.”
“And find me a legionnaire who’s fluent in Sarmatian, preferably the Roxolani dialect. I’m going to need my own translator and someone to teach me.” Lucius knew he had a few people of Sarmatian origins in his legion, but couldn’t put a name to one at the moment.
They stepped out into the courtyard where the rest of his escort cooled their heels in the shade. Seeing their commander’s sharp step betraying his annoyance, his men snapped to attention and began readying to escort him where ever he wanted. Lucius pulled his helmet onto his head and was reaching for the leather thongs to strap it into place when he heard his name called.
“Primus Princeps Centurio Ferrata!”
Turning, Lucius saw the translator walking quickly to catch up with him. He pulled his helmet off and bowed to the woman, allowing time for her mistress and her entourage to catch up.
“My mistress wishes to speak with you before you depart.”
Lucius nodded. “I’m at her immediate disposal. How are you called?”
Lucuis nodded, waiting with the woman. Aella’s hair was darker, tending toward black, and although it had some wave, nowhere near as much as Marpesia’s. Aella had the look of a Persian or Parthian or one of the other people’s closer to the southern border of the great steppes.
Marpesia emerged with her escort into the courtyard. She strolled, unhurried. Now that she wasn’t in the presence of the imperator, she’d allowed her face to draw into her own mask of annoyance. When she saw her translator, she changed her course to meet up with her. As her eyes fell on Lucius, the clouds cleared from her gaze as she drew her face into a friendly expression.
Marpesia, keeping her eyes on Lucius, spoke to him, her translator speaking the words as hers in Greek. “Primus Princeps Centurio Ferrata, I wish to invite you to a banquet in your honor at our palace tomorrow evening.”
Bowing, Lucius replied, “I’d be honored.”
“Excellent. I shall send an escort tomorrow evening at two hours before sunset. Then we can share food and drink and discuss matters of importance.”
“I shall be ready.” Lucius bowed respectfully.
Marpesia returned it, but unlike the quick one she’d sketched for the imperator, she infused her bow with respect.
“Until tomorrow, Centurio.”
Lucius relaxed, leaning back in his chaise, sipping on the high quality wine they’d served him. It was a nice change, although living in forts around the border had rendered his taste in alcoholic beverages less picky. Sometimes if you wanted a drink, you drank what was available. He was enjoying watching his officers and the assembled Roxolani interact, especially as the drinks flowed. The laughter and good cheer was doing more to lighten his mood than anything. When he saw Marpesia and her translator approach, he sat up, standing when they stopped in front of him.
“Are you enjoying yourself, Centurio?” Aella asked.
“Yes. I don’t get much cause or time for revelry. It’s a nice break from the routine. Thanks for hosting this banquet.”
Once Aella translated his words, Marpesia replied adding a bit of invective to her words. Aella replied, an uncertain, questioning look spreading across her face. Marpesia replied firmly.
“My mistress says it’s the least we can do to show proper respect to our honored guest and ally. She knows how to show respect to great leaders, unlike certain others who neglect the resources they have available to them.”
He chuckled. Apparently his treatment at Constantius’s hand had offended the leader of the Roxolani clan he was about to be allied with.
He shrugged. “I appreciate the sentiment. The courtesy you’ve shown means more to me than the thirty years of being ignored from certain others.” He gave a respectful half bow.
“My mistress would like to know if you’d accompany her on a tour of the palace Constantius has lent us for our stay. It’s quite wonderful.”
Lucius nodded. “I’d like that.” He smiled at Marpesia.
She returned his smile. His breath hitched at the twinkle in her eyes and the broad, open expresion. The sound faded from his ears as the rest of the room disappeared from his awareness. Aella’s subtle cough drew them both back to the moment.
“Please, Centurio, whenever you’re ready.”
Lucius nodded, still keeping his gaze focused on Marpesia. He couldn’t take his eyes off her. Marpesia gestured for Lucius to walk beside her. Aella fell in behind them, close enough to translate but not on top of them.
Seeing that Lucius was about to leave, Tinkomaros called out, “Would you like an escort, sir?”
He waved his centurion off. “No, I think I can manage.”
Marpesia laughed, speaking.
“Are your men afraid a couple women could harm the great Centurio Immortalis?” Aella translated.
He turned around, looking Aella over in her scale armor with her axes poking over her shoulder. “I’d hardly call either of you harmless. I know what hardened fighters look like. How they carry themselves. You both know your way around combat. My men are always cognizant of my safety, mostly unwarranted. It’s like having five thousand little mothers looking after me.”
“Does your age bring you fragility?”
“No. The age you see me as now is basically where Mithras has locked my body. I wish it had happened a few years earlier. I put a lot of mileage on this body. It’s supremely annoying to live for over two hundred years and wake up each day with the same aches and pains you had before the change happened.”
Marpesia chuckled after Aella translated his small diatribe.
“She says, ‘I’m not nearly as old as you, but I have old scars and the twinges that go with them. It’s not a soft life we lead, warriors, soldiers, and leaders of people.’”
They stepped out on a balcony overlooking a large garden. The huge estate was one of the older ones not torn down in Constantius’s orgy of building when he took over Byzantium to make his new capital. Green hued bronze and marble statues were scattered about the mature landscaping.
“My mistress says if you’d like, she can show you the wonderful statues some other time when there’s the light to do it properly.”
“I’d like that very much.” He smiled at her again, pleased at the offer to spend more time with her. He liked art and statues, always seeking out the softer signs of civilization when he got into a city. He always felt like it reminded him of what he was fighting for. He had no idea if the blood drinkers liked or made art. They’d been humans once upon a time before they were stolen by the dark forces who enlisted them as foot soldiers in their war against the light and humans.
“Do you like art, Centurio?” Aella asked.
“I’m quite fond of it, actually. I’ve never been struck with the impulse to create for the sake of beauty, but I can appreciate the drive in others and love being able to witness their work.”
“Our people don’t really make many statues, at least those of us who still keep to the old ways. They’re hard to carry along with you when you’re riding over the steppes. They’re too heavy and take up too much space in our wagons.”
“What do Sarmatian artists make then?”
“They stick to things we can carry with us. They work in metals.” Marpesia held up her wrist showing an elaborately engraved and constructed gold bracelet.
It was a series of wolves chasing each other’s tails as they ran around her wrist, the lead wolf’s head was arched up, a howl frozen in time, tiny red gems sparkling in its eyes. With that hand, she reached up and ran her fingers over the gold and gemmed ornaments dangling in short chains from the diadem circling her brow. The ornaments twinkled under the flickering flames of the lamps, although Lucius felt the sparkle in Marpesia’s eyes rendered them dull and gauche.
“We also have wood carvers who decorate our wagons. Our weavers are also very talented, creating pleasing designs in our textiles.”
She touched the sleeve of her tunic to demonstrate. The black base was covered in white stars of various sizes and shapes. She wore matching trousers under the tunic.
“My favorite though, are our tattoo artists who decorate our bodies.” Marpesia pulled up her long sleeve, revealing a stunning stylized wolf tattooed over her forearm. She rolled her around around so Lucius could see the whole thing. Against the rippling muscles of Marpesia forearm, the wolf almost appeared to be alive, howling at a moon that wasn’t there.
Once he pulled his eyes away from the pale skin of Marpesia’s arm, he made eye contact. “Your artists are truly talented.”
Marpesia nodded and left the balcony, taking Lucius’s arm at the elbow to direct him back down the hall they were walking through.
“My mistress would like to show you some of the beautiful stone floors and painted walls.”
Lucius walked along side Marpesia in silence, simultaneously relaxed and enjoying his proximity to the woman he’d just met and tensely alert, watching her body language to gauge her opinion of him. They stepped into a large, mostly empty room. It didn’t look like it had been cleaned and pressed into service. The oil lamp Aella had grabbed from the hall cast a dim flickering light into the room.
The walls were a riot of reds and blues and greens, depicting a massive ocean scene with dolphins and sirens and other creatures from Greek and Roman stories. He looked around to see if Odysseus might be floating about somewhere in the scene. The same aquatic theme was continued on the tile mosaic floor.
“It’s a shame they didn’t make this room available for your use. It’s beautiful,” Lucius said.
Aella, picking up on the tone of her mistress, added the note of scorn from Marpesia’s tone. “I don’t think they wanted us barbarians fouling their artwork.”
“I’m not terribly sure my imperator respects the empire’s neighbors.”
“He views us as people to be used or conquered, mostly both. He longs to make us Romans and send our warriors over his empire to fight for his glory. He doesn’t see us as free people,” Aella translated directly.
“You’re being awfully open with me. I’m one of his subjects. A leader of a legion.”
“What can he do to us? We are free Roxolani.”
“He could deny your request for the Black Legion.”
“He won’t. This presents too many conveniences for him. He can use us to defend his borders and send you out of his empire.” Marpesia stopped, looking him over. “Besides, you have a reputation beyond Roma’s borders as a man of honesty and fair dealing with us ‘barbarians.’ I do not think you’ll betray my confidences to an emperor who does not respect you.”
“No, I wouldn’t,” Lucius replied. “My emperor has pledged my aid to you. We need to trust in each other if we’re going to make it out of this alive. The Lugii say the whole tribe of Goths are moving south, and if you’re right about what’s driving them, it’s going to be a difficult task to come out of this intact on the other side, one legion and your clan.”
Marpesia, her expression growing serious, nodded, a delicate frown tugging at the corners of her mouth after she heard the translated words. His eyes lingered on her full lips, wishing they’d return to the smile she usually wore so freely around him.
They turned down another dark hallway, making for another one of the large rooms. “My mistress wishes to show you the room of the Amazons.”
The room wasn’t as large as the hall they were using for their banquet or the aquatic themed one, but it still left plenty of room for frescoes of Amazon warriors fighting Greek heroes from antiquity. The mythical warrior women looked suspiciously like Aella and Marpesia in their tunic and trousers, their pointed axes flying toward nude Greeks with their shields and helms.
“Do you know the story of the how the Sarmatian people came to be, Centurio?” Aella said, translating Marpesia’s question. Marpesia faced him, her eyebrow lifted.
He shook his head. “I’m afraid not.”
“Would you like to hear it?”
Lucius nodded, staring into Marpesia’s gray eyes. At the mention of Amazons and Sarmatians, there was a wildness contained inside her gaze he couldn’t look away from.
“Please, sit. We brought in chairs for your comfort,” Aella said, gesturing toward two chairs facing each other.
Lucius gestured for Marpesia to sit before he did. Once she relaxed into the cushioned wooden chair, Lucius joined her while Aella walked around the room lighting other oils lamps from the one she carried. The two chairs were angled slightly so they could look over the room while also facing each other. When Aella finished, she took up her post behind where they sat so she could translate their words while not blocking their view.
Marpesia started speaking, the cadence and tones of a practiced storyteller filling her words with gravitas.
“Our story begins on the south shore of the Euxeinos Pontos, in the ancestral home of the Amazons. The Greeks had invaded our lands, seeking to conquer us as they do to any who live where their ships can reach. They captured many of our warriors, loading them on boats to take them back as slaves.
“Our ancestors were fierce women and took over the ships they’d been herded onto. And although they were dangerous warriors, they weren’t sailors.” Marpesia shifted to the side, leaning more towards Lucius, letting her wool covered knee come into contact with his bare knee.
The sudden touch caused him to startle slightly in his chair, the contact sending tingles throughout his body—confusion at his own reaction joining the tingling sensation. He worked to calm his breathing, not wishing to show the effect so simple an accident of contact had on him.
She continued on as if she didn’t notice his reaction, although the faint trace of a smile on her face betrayed her. “Eventually, their ships washed up on the far northern shores of the Euxeinos Pontus. On foot, the Amazons wandered into the land of the horse people known as the Scythians by the Greeks of old, before the Romans conquered the lands of the Hellenes and even before Alexandros stretched out his arm to the far lands of the east.”
Reaching out to lay her hand on his forearm, Marpesia leaned in even closer. Lucius swallowed, the skin under her fingers seemed to burn from her touch. The playful glint in Marpesia’s eyes betraying she knew the effect she had on Lucius.
She continued, leaving space for Aella to translate, “Our horses often run free, not fully tamed. The Amazons found a band of horses wandering the steps, letting the free wind flow through their manes and tails. They captured the horses, befriending them, making them their companions.
“The Scythians who lived in the lands the Amazons were roaming, feared and admired the fierce warriors and wished to integrate the women into their community, to strengthen their bloodlines, and grow their power by adding the fierce warriors to their ranks. They sent out a band of their young, fierce warriors, men and women, to seek out the Amazons and woo them to join their tribe.
“Wherever the Scythians showed up to speak to the Amazons, the Amazons chose to disappear into the steppes, not understanding the words called to them over the broad distances they kept between themselves and the band of Scythians who pursued them. One of the Scythians, wiser than most, suggested a change to their tactics.”
Lucius stared into Marpesia’s eyes, engrossed with her story.
“Instead, they followed while keeping a safe distance so as not to spook the Amazons into riding away yet another time. One night as one of the Amazon women swam in a river under the stars and moon, one of the Scythians approached speaking soft words. The Amazon found the Scythian attractive. Soon, they sat under the stars together, seducing each other under the watchful eye of the moon goddess.” Marpesia’s eyes sparkled with mischief.
“The next night, each of them brought a friend to introduce. Soon, the two groups were spending much time together, teaching each other their languages and exploring each other’s bodies with all the vigor of youthful warriors until there were no longer two groups but one. However, the Amazons didn’t want to become part of the Scythian tribe and give up the ways of the warrior, nor did their Scythian lovers want to see their Amazons diminished, having fallen in love with their fierceness.”
Marpesia, her hand still on Lucius’s forearm, sat up straighter. “Instead, they formed their own band to roam the steppes. And as they grew and prospered, they split off and coaxed more Scythians away from their tribes to join the bands of warrior men and women who became known as the Sarmatians. And thus, our people were born of the blending of the mighty Amazon women and Scythian peoples.”
“Thank you for sharing this with me.” Lucius bowed his head appreciatively. “May I ask a question?”
“Marpesia welcomes the words of the great Centurio Immortalis.”
Lucius chuckled. “You may refer to me in private as Lucius, the name my mother gave me. Centurio will suffice in front of my men.”
Marpesia smiled broadly, nodding at the courtesy.
“Why would the Scythians leave their people to join with a people who are separate from their tribe?”
“It is the way of our people, the way of the steppes. We don’t mate within our own clans. Clans are our family. Our peoples often gather at the borders of our territories to trade in the spring. We celebrate the gathering. Those who are inclined may select a mate from the other tribe. Some women will find a man to father a child with and depart if they’re not interested in bringing the man with them, or they may choose to join his tribe.”
Aella was resting her hand on Marpesia shoulder. Marpesia reached up and affectionately squeezed Aella’s hand, rubbing her fingers over the back of her hand. This time, Aella spoke as herself. “I am from a different clan than Marpesia’s wolves. I joined the wolves after Marpesia and I met at such a clan meeting.”
Aella translated her words for Marpesia who nodded in agreement and added, “I left my father’s clan to form the wolves. I wasn’t particularly interested in the man he wanted me to marry. He was not thrilled I wished to continue bearing axe and shield, wishing me to be a docile clan chief’s wife. I didn’t want that, so I challenged my father’s proposed suitor to a fight. I refused to marry any man who couldn’t best me in a duel. He failed to put me on my back so I refused to go onto it voluntarily for a man such as him. Though after that, he wasn’t much interested in me either and called off the betrothal.” She looked up affectionately at Aella. “So I seduced his pretty cousin and took her with me and then took my friends and left my father’s clan. I preferred to be free to pursue my own destiny.
“My father named my cousin to be his heir, and he’s welcome to it. He’s a far better choice to lead the combined peoples of the Roxolani. He let’s my Wolves wander where we want, and we respond to his call when he needs my warriors or support with the other clans.” She let go of Aella’s hand and leaned closer to Lucius.
“That’s why I’m here. He needed someone who he could trust and who had dealings with your southerners.” Seeing the look of confusion on Lucius’s face, she added, “I like to bring my wolves along the Euxeinos Pontus to the borders of your empire to trade.”
Lucius nodded, letting her words and story sink in. He found his eyes wandering over her relaxed body as she sat in her chair. She’d returned her hand ot the hand of her lover and translator. Then he looked at her hand still resting on his arm, feeling a new surge of warmth spreading over his body, his confusion doubling.
He decided to rescue himself. “We should probably get back to the banquet, or my men will wonder what you’ve done with me.”
Marpesia gave a courtly nod and stood up. Lucius stood, rolling his neck around to loosen it up after watching Marpesia’s face while she told the history of her people. Disappointed in himself for breaking the magic moment, he could have listened to her melodious voice all night. After fighting the empire’s enemies for nearly two-hundred and thirty years, he’d been routed by a feminine touch.
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