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A World War 2 Trilogy

By FRED NATH (Novelist and Neurosurgeon)

AMULET V Preview


Book I

Chapter I

I liked Caesar before they killed him, but his death was his own fault. You can’t fight your way to kingship by forgiving your mortal enemies and any fool should be able to see that. Either way, I know it and that’s all that really matters isn’t it? I’m still alive and he isn’t.

I’m dictating this, the story of my life, but I have to check every damned word because these scribes are German. You can’t get Greek slaves in this neck of the woods; only Germans, and their writerly skills are limited by their tiny intellects.

Why do I bother? I’ll tell you. It’s because I learned from my father, or more correctly my stepfather, Aulus Veridius Scapula, the importance of recording history with accuracy. He wrote up all his own adventures and jolly fine reading it made. Either way, that’s where I realised it’s a useful way to look back. Lessons are learned that way and I want my people to learn those lessons, or the tribe will never hold together; they aren’t much cleverer than rabbits, the lot of them, after all.

Well, back to Caesar. Bald as a coot and he decides to be king. He called it “Permanent Dictator” but he meant “King” all the same. Bastards stabbed him about twenty times in the chest and in the Curia. It wasn’t funny at the time either. It changed everything for me and for Rome too, for that matter.

It was early evening when the news was out. We were all at home on the Quirinal where my stepfather had his villa. He was rich. He inherited land and sold it making a fortune. And me? I reaped the benefits, up until they murdered the old “Bald Eagle”, as they called Caesar in the army. We were dining in the triclinium and just onto the main course of wild boar when Aulus stood up.

‘Hush,’ he said.

Silly thing to say really, because no one was speaking at the time; they all had their mouths full of pork. Hypsicratea, my stepmother looked up.

A frown appeared on her once gorgeous face and she said, ‘What is it my husband?’

She talked like that because she was once a Pontic queen, but the death of the Great King Mithridates put paid to that and my stepfather picked her up cheap afterwards and married her.

Artabazes was there too. He was my stepbrother. I always liked him and over the years, we became close. We were different as wine and water of course. He was serious, studious, and forward-looking. Me? I’m not quite like that. Like wine and water as I said.

‘Sounds like a riot,’ I said.

‘Someone banging on our door,’ Artabazes said.

‘Sounds urgent,’ Ingunde said.

Sorry. Should have told you about her. She was German and the first one of that race I ever met. As a young girl, some of us Romans took her prisoner and sold her into slavery. She ended up as a household slave in the court of a Bosporan king and she helped Aulus get me back when they kidnapped me; her sword and spear skills were better than some of the gladiators who taught me and I’m damned good with a blade, I can tell you. She stayed with us after that and a few years later became my lover, even though she was seven years older than I was. She was a tall, flaxen-haired woman but muscular and lithe. Ingunde was the only woman I had ever made love to for whom I would have done anything, well almost. Trouble was she was always threatening to go home to the wattle huts of her people though she never quite made it while I was in Rome.

My sister Antonia picked up many bad habits from Ingunde, among them a fondness for fighting. At the age of six, she tried to stab me with a table knife. A common event, as it turns out in Germania, but in Rome, a definite lapse in table manners. Aulus tried to keep them apart after that, though he only partially succeeded. Tonia often got up in the night and I would find her cuddled up to Ingunde and me in the morning. I never noticed her get in, since I was usually comatose after a skin-full of wine. Halcyon days those. However, I digress.

‘I’m going to see what’s going on,’ I said and jumped up from the divan.

‘No,’ Aulus said, ‘the slaves can do that. Since when do you answer the door? I could have you chained to the porta if you like and you can then be a traditional janitor.’

‘I’m just curious, that’s all.’ I said.

‘You lack gravitas my son. Be patient, whoever it is interrupting our meal he will have to wait anyway. Polyphemus,’ Aulus said, ‘more wine please. And for the sake of Jove, Quintus, lie down.’

He was getting annoyed now, so I lay down next to Ingunde. We had become informal and relaxed in the family and our women ate with us and even reclined at table too. In a formal dinner it would have been scandalous but Hypsicratea was determined we should be modern in our family life. I don’t suppose it mattered when there were only us present.

In moments, Doiros appeared. Now, Doiros was an irritating fellow; he was from Gaul. My stepfather bought him himself, when the little bugger was just a lad my own age. They had captured him in Gaul and his Latin was terrible, even when he wasn’t pretending. The fellow accompanied Aulus all the way to The Bosporus when I was kidnapped and saved my life, risking his own into the bargain. I suppose I should have been grateful, but he bickered with me constantly, twittering on about honour and behaviour and such. It drove me mad at times, but since my stepfather manumitted him, I could hardly clip him round the ears as he deserved. He could wield a spear like a God so I always tried to keep him close if there was trouble.

Doiros was small by my standards, but I suppose I am a big fellow, broad in the shoulder and quite German looking according to Ingunde.

‘Caesar is dead,’ he said.

Uncomprehending, my stepfather looked up and said, ‘Dead? Who’s dead?’

Doiros shrugged non-committal, and said, ‘Caesar.’

‘Is this a joke? If it is, it’s in poor taste I can tell you.’

‘No sir. Some men killed him in Pompo’s culina.’

‘In Pompey’s kitchen??’

‘Yes, where the men in tubas meet.’

‘The Curia?’

‘Ah,’ Doiros said.

‘What men? In the Curia? Caesar? Impossible. You’re sure?’ Aulus said; he was shocked after all.

Artabazes said, ‘Doiros, are you really saying Julius Caesar has been assassinated in the Curia?’

Doiros nodded to the accompaniment of a resounding silence. For that matter, everywhere seemed to be silent. I looked around at the assembled Veridians. To say they were all astounded is an understatement. Aulus gripped his golden cup and I could see the pallor of his knuckles matched his ashen face. He gulped some wine.

‘Aulus, what should we do? Hypsicratea said, ‘There will be civil war again. Maybe we need to leave Rome this time.’

‘No. All we know now is what Doiros has heard, it could be a rumour and nothing more. I’m going down to the Forum Romanum to find out. Polyphemus, get my cloak and that sicarius Polymecles gave me. It’s in the chest by my bed.’

Polyphemus left as if a horde of Germans were after him.

I stood up again.

I said, ‘I’ll go with you. It may not be safe.’

‘If it isn’t, Aulus said, ‘I can’t see how you will help. No, I’m better alone with this.’

‘Take him with you,’ Hypsicratea said, ‘He will watch your back. We need to know both whether it’s true and who did it. Someone might try to get at you too.’

‘I know,’ Aulus muttered as he donned his cloak. ‘Quintus get a cloak and we’ll be off.’

He strode to the doorway and crossing the peristylium, made for the door to the atrium. I followed but he didn’t look round. I didn’t want to wear a cloak like some old woman and I knew he didn’t want me there whatever I was wearing. Ever since I was ten and took an injury to my head from a sword, he treated me like an imbecile. He said the wound had robbed me of judgement, but to be honest, although I don’t plan things too far ahead, I’m a damned good soldier, whatever he thought.

A deep, dark gloom had descended on the city. It was obvious even to me. We didn’t come across a soul as we turned left, heading down the cobbled roadway along the Vicus Longus. We passed under the archway of the aqueduct and turned right passing the entrance to the Subura and making for the Capitoline where the Senate House was. We entered the Forum at the east end and passed the black marble slabs of Romulus’ tomb.

I know I shouldn’t digress but there were long-standing rumours that no one was entombed there at all and it was really a story made up by those Gracci brothers. No one dared dig around there though, to find out; it would have been sacrilege.

We stood in the torchlight looking up the steps at the Senate House. Above the door was a carving in the stone proclaiming “SPQR” which means “For the Senate and People of Rome”. Very noble it sounds. Truth was, they were a bunch of self-serving, money grubbing “yes”-men who did whatever Caesar told them to do, which was one reason I was disinclined to believe Doiros’ story. I couldn’t imagine any of them having the guts to kill Caesar anyway, but I suppose they proved me wrong in that.

The torches outside were still blazing, so we could see everything clearly but the absence of any spectator to ask meant we had either to break the law and enter the House, or wait for some passer-by to inform us. We waited.

We did not have long to wait in fact, because two men came out. I recognised both of them, Cassius Longinus and Decimus Brutus. I didn’t know the other assassins then but I learned all about them in the end. Cassius knew my father because they were both in that awful disaster in Parthia when Crassus led a huge army against ten thousand horse-archers. You would never believe it, but the horse-archers destroyed four fifths of the Roman forces and the rest, like my stepfather were lucky to escape with their lives. Cassius was one of the few commanders to keep his head and he got five thousand men away, to his credit. When I say that, I mean it; the Parthians cut Crassus’ head off and showed it to the Romans to demoralise them. It is a trick I have since used to good effect myself.

The other chap, Brutus, was an old friend of Caesar’s and what he was doing there I could not imagine. Anyway, there they were.

Cassius spoke first. Standing on the Senate House steps, bloodstains all over the front of his chalk-white toga, he raised his hand. He looked plump and ridiculous since he was a fat bastard, but he acted as if he was addressing a huge crowd even though there were only my stepfather and me. I began to dissolve into laughter and I think Aulus knew things might go badly, so he nudged me hard in the ribs and the sound of my merriment faded as fast as it arose.

‘Ave, Aulus Veridius Scapula,’ Cassius said, his voice trembling and his breath coming in deep inhalations. I knew he was scared, because he sweated so hard it ran like the Tiber down his forehead and temples.

‘Cassius, what’s happened?’ my stepfather said. He had his hand behind his back and I knew it clutched the handle of his knife. I carried no such weapon, but I had grabbed a stout stave from the vestibulum as we left the house. It was handy as a club as well as a long-reach weapon. A fellow has to make do with anything he can find in a fight, I can tell you.

Brutus piped up with, ‘We have freed you all.’

The entire farce seemed unreal. There were only the two of us in the audience.

‘What has happened? Freed us? How?’ Aulus said.

‘The tyrant is dead; he will never again threaten the freedom of the citizens of Rome.’

My stepfather climbed to the top step towards them.

‘What tyrant? What are you talking about? Caesar?’

‘Yes,’ Cassius said. ‘We are the Liberators of Rome.’

Aulus lost what little control he had managed to hang on to so far. He grabbed Cassius by the toga and looked him in the eye.

‘I’ll tell you what you’ve done, you fools. You’ve started another civil war. Where’s the body?’

Cassius said, ‘The remaining Liberatores will bring the tyrant’s remains soon from the Curia.’

‘Does Marcus Antonius know about this?’ Aulus said.

Cassius took a step back towards the Senate House. Aulus let go of him then, since not being a senator, the law did not allow him beyond the last step.

Cassius seemed uncertain, he said, ‘Well, err… No.’

‘And what do you think he will do when he finds out? Make a sacrifice of three white bulls in your honour? You’re all idiots.’

Brutus reached forward and placed a hand on my stepfather’s shoulder. It was a silly thing to have done. Aulus had fought as a gladiator as well as in the Legions and apart from me, he is the hardest man I have ever met.

Aulus turned towards Brutus and grabbing the man’s wrist with his left, he continued to turn, pulling down hard. Brutus pitched forwards, off balance and tumbled towards the steps. Letting go, Aulus twisted back to his left and caught Brutus with his clenched right fist on the side of the head. Decimus Brutus, killer of kings, ex-general in Caesar’s army, ex-consul, and senator of Rome, took off down the steps of the Senate house as if he was learning to fly. He landed at the bottom and rolled about groaning. Cassius backed away to the safety of the Senate House drawing a big, clumsy dagger from beneath his toga. Cassius knew what Aulus was like.

‘Keep away. You can’t enter here.’

Still shaking, Aulus said, ‘Nothing will save you once Marcus Antonius finds out. And you know what? I will be right behind him. You and your group of snivelling traitors have done more harm to Rome than any single group since Hannibal crushed our legions at Cannae.’

We backed down the steps and made our way home. I aimed a kick at Brutus as we passed but he dodged it and I realised he wasn’t as badly hurt as I had thought, the sneaky rat. We headed down the Capitoline.

‘What do you think will happen now?’

‘I think there will be factions. I also think it will end in war. I know which side I will fight on.’

‘Which one is that?’ I said.

Seemed a reasonable question to me, but the only reply I got was, ‘Ohhh, you!’

It was all I could get out of Aulus, but I knew he wasn’t angry with me for once. He was upset over the loss of his friend or so I thought at the time.