AGENT OF ROME: THE SIEGE
First published in Great Britain in 2011 by Hodder & Stoughton
An Hachette UK company
Copyright © Nick Brown 2011
Map © Rosie Collins 2011
The right of Nick Brown to be identified as the Author of the Work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
All rights reserved.
No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
All characters in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
A CIP catalogue record for this title is available from the British Library.
Epub ISBN: 9781444714876
Book ISBN: 9781444714852
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For Mum and Dad
Marcus Aurelius Valerius Claudius, Emperor of Rome, rules a divided domain threatened by invasion and revolt.
In the East, the Persians have long posed the greatest challenge to Roman dominance. Control of the eastern provinces has been ceded to Odenathus, Roman ally and emperor of the Syrian city-state, Palmyra. Having won the second of his major victories against the Persians, Odenathus has been mysteriously murdered.
His ambitious and charismatic widow, Queen Zenobia, takes command of his empire and army. Not content to remain guarantor, she unleashes a rebellion against Rome. Having already attacked Arabia, Palestine and Egypt, she now looks north to the mighty Syrian capital: Antioch.
Cassius Quintius Corbulo nudged his horse towards the side of the alley, taking them both out of the glare of the bright morning sun. He sighed impatiently, twisted in his saddle and stared down the line.
Some of the men were mounted, others were on foot. There were more than a hundred of them, but they were an unimpressive bunch: mainly clerks, engineers and slaves. The handful of legionaries were mostly injured and unfit for service. Supplies hadn’t reached the area in months; not one soldier had a full set of equipment.
Cassius had made a note of every name and occupation. He also knew each man’s age and had checked three times to confirm what he already suspected: at nineteen he was the youngest in the column.
Unfortunately, he was also in charge of it.
The alley ran alongside a walled square in the centre of Nessara, an isolated town on the edge of the Syrian desert. Until that very morning, the compound had housed a tiny garrison, now part of the column. Though long neglected and soon to be abandoned, the compound retained its most valuable feature: a working well. The Romans would not depart until every last man had filled every last barrel, canteen and gourd. They faced a long march, and if the previous week was anything to go by, it would be conducted in blistering, unrelenting heat.
‘Give that back!’
A local man hurried past, in pursuit of a burly Roman heading for the end of the alley. Opposite Cassius was the Syrian’s stall, a meagre selection of fruit laid out beneath a sagging awning.
The Roman turned round. It was Ammianus, the man in charge of the Nessara garrison. He held no rank but had assumed command on account of his age and years of service. Cassius had not enjoyed working with the vulgar Thracian over the last two days. He was by trade a stable master and seemed ill-equipped to deal with men, maintaining a particular antipathy for the locals.
In his hand was a palm leaf full of dates.
‘Give it back!’ repeated the stall owner, now switching from Greek to passable Latin.
‘Well, well,’ said Ammianus with a mocking smile, ‘an educated peasant. But not educated enough to know when to bite his tongue. Back to your stall now or I’ll slice it off!’
The Syrian was dark and well built. He squared up to Ammianus.
The other legionaries watched with interest, absorbed by the prospect of an impending fight.
Across the street was a group of six local men. They too looked on, heads bowed, jabbering excitedly. The departure of the column meant freedom from their Roman masters, for the time being at least. Most of their compatriots had been conscripted as Roman auxiliaries while others had elected to fight alongside the Palmyrans.
Had there been more men of fighting age, Cassius might have worried about some kind of uprising. He was still wary of having such a large group gathered together in the centre of the town. Ammianus and his like had done little to enhance relations. Tensions were running high; even the smallest incident might get out of hand.
Sighing again, Cassius patted his horse’s neck, slid off his saddle and walked towards the quarrelling pair. The dull ache that had been building in his head all morning was rapidly worsening.
‘What’s going on here?’
‘Nothing to concern you, centurion,’ answered Ammianus with an oily smile.
As usual, Cassius felt a pang of unease when so addressed. Technically speaking, he was not a centurion at all.
The Syrian spat a burst of invective in his native Aramaic. Cassius held up an appeasing hand and quietened him down before speaking to Ammianus again.
‘Perhaps you should return the fruit. Or at least pay for it.’
‘Since when do Roman soldiers take orders from locals, sir?’
There were a few murmurs and nods from the other legionaries.
Cassius had lost count of the times his instructions had been questioned since arriving in Syria. Most of the soldiers had never encountered such a youthful officer; they were used to experienced veterans promoted after years of service. Cassius had given up explaining to them that the army was now recruiting young, educated men to bolster the hard-pressed forces in the East. If not for the stripe on his tunic, the crest on his helmet and his signed set of orders, he doubted he would have got anything done.
Cassius was naturally rangy and his long, slender limbs made it impossible for him to pass for an older man. Even the rigours of training had added only a limited amount of bulk and this added to his sense of inadequacy. In truth, he felt very much like an actor playing a role and, as he had a little experience of theatre, he had decided early on that he should at least put considerable effort into his performance.
He gestured towards the horses.
‘In case you haven’t noticed, Ammianus, we are leaving. Retreating, in fact. Hardly the time to antagonise our hosts.’
Cassius spoke in Greek so that all present would understand what was being said. Most Syrians knew enough of the language to get by. Only those who dealt closely with the Romans picked up any Latin.
One of the legionaries laughed.
‘I’ve been stationed here almost a year, sir,’ continued Ammianus, ‘and I have always taken as I pleased.’
The Syrian suddenly stepped forward and made a grab for the fruit. Cassius blocked his way.
‘Try that again. Please,’ said Ammianus, one hand on the horsewhip hanging from his belt.
A couple of the Romans cheered. More locals had gathered at the end of the alley, including the men from across the street.
Someone brushed past Cassius’ shoulder. He turned to find a tall legionary beside him, one arm bound by a bloodstained bandage, the other holding a gleaming five-foot throwing javelin.
‘Why not let them fight, sir? We could do with some entertainment.’
There were more cheers. Some of the Syrians pressed into the alley. One of the mounted soldiers spat into the dust at their feet.
‘Move back,’ Cassius said to the tall legionary. The man smiled contemptuously and took a quarter-step backwards.
‘Damn all you Romans,’ said the stall owner through gritted teeth, eyes locked on Ammianus.
‘That’s enough out of you!’ snapped Cassius.
‘Let me teach him some respect,’ suggested Ammianus. ‘These dogs only understand a good thrashing.’
‘Drop that and I’ll fight you right here,’ countered the Syrian, nodding at the whip.
‘Any way you want it.’
The Romans roared again. The tall legionary clapped his hands and waved to another man who had dismounted close to the end of the alley.
‘Cinna! Come quickly or you’ll miss the action! I’m betting on the Syrian.’
The legionary laughed. Ammianus frowned.
Some of the bolder Syrians pushed their way into the alley. As Cinna passed them, comments were made. Though spoken in Aramaic, their mocking tone was unmistakable.
‘Say that in Greek!’ Cinna barked.
Cassius’ headache was now an ever-enlarging ball of pain above his eyes. Beads of sweat had popped out across his face and back. His fingers, gripping the top of his belt, were wet against the slick leather.
He knew he had to act.
‘You!’ he shouted, pointing at Cinna. ‘Back on your horse! That’s an order!’
After a brief hesitation, the legionary removed his hand from his sword pommel and reluctantly retreated. Two others who had dismounted got back on their horses.