S C R O L L X
The Wolves of War
|"There, now. Dry your eyes, my
child," said Livia patiently. "Your life is surely comfortable enough."
Amelia was at her dressing table. She gave her stepmother a hateful look. Her eyeliner was running, like black tears across her cheeks. Her honeysuckle curls were all awry.
"Its because of you that father died," the girl said bitterly. "And now this house is tainted with your shame!"
Livia stayed expressionless. "Ill thank you, girl, to show me some respect."
"Everybody knows that youre the Emperors new mistress. This upstart glutton who disgraces Rome!" Amelias blue eyes flashed over her shoulder. "I knew you where a whore when we first met."
Livias dark eyes didnt blink. Her white teeth teased her lip. At moments such as this she had the look of a young kitten: appealing and completely pitiless.
"The Emperor is generous. He keeps us clothed and fed. I will not have a scene, Amelia. Sit quiet and let Cornelia brush your hair."
She gestured to the slave who stood beside her. Cornelia waited with a sour face. Amelia eyed her warily, then turned away again. "I hate the way that old cow looks at me. I still want Zoe!"
Livia gave a flinty smile. "Well, Zoe is long gone. I see now where you learned your insolence! Be careful not to follow her example all the way. I heard she ended up in the arena."
Amelias pale eyes grew wide. "That isnt true!" she hissed. "I wish she could be here again. She wasnt just my slave. She was my friend."
Livia shrugged dismissively. "Whatever. Now get dressed."
Cornelia went across and drew Amelias blonde curls back. The younger woman quivered with distaste. "As soon as Im of age," she said, "Im taking everything that father left me."
"Of course you are," her stepmother said calmly. She watched Cornelia slip a cord around Amelias neck. The blonde girl just had time to gasp before the thong drew taut. She croaked and grunted, clutching at her throat.
Cornelias face stayed sullen, as if this were just another household chore. The muscles bulged in her strong arms. Amelias tongue poked stiffly from her mouth. She bucked and wriggled frantically, but all to no avail. Her bosom swelled and shuddered, then hung limp.
The stolid slave awaited the last gurgle, then let Amelias body slump face down. Livia sighed with mock regret. "A seizure, and so young! Have Crispus make arrangements for the funeral at once." She touched the slaves arm as she passed. "Ill see you are rewarded well for this."
Left alone, she stroked the dead girls shoulder. The warmth of life still lingered on her skin. Soon the flawless flesh would just be ashes, and all the merchants fortune would be hers.
And more than that, Vitellius had sent for her again. She felt a sticky glow between her thighs. Tonight she would be feasting at the palace. And afterwards, on silken sheets, shed fuck the very Emperor of Rome.
* * *
Sergius sat up muzzily and ran his fingers through his close-cropped hair. Dawn had seeped into the tent. He heard the cock-crow sounded in the distance. Drawing up one leg, he shoved the girl out from beneath his grubby blanket. "Hurry up, you lazy slut. The cohort will be waiting for their stew."
The girl was nude, her body sleek as honey in the half-light. Her hair was collar-length and dark as ink. She blinked towards him sleepily. He glanced at her firm breasts. When he looked back at her face, the eyes had grown as watchful as a cats.
"Go on," he said, more gently now. He lusted for the girl, but she intrigued him. Hed slept with many of her kind who lived around the camp. But this one spent the most time in his bed.
He watched her yawn and stretch herself. The pallid gleam of daylight tinged her skin. He looked for the old bitemark on her shoulder. It was small, as if left by a womans mouth. Then there were the well-healed scars across her ribs and biceps. A knife or sword must have inflicted those. And as for the weals above one breast He thought they were the claw-marks of a wolf.
"I reckon lifes been tough for you," he said as she rose upright. "Once weve won the battle here Youll have some comfort if you stay with me."
Zoe turned and looked at him. The pale dawn lit her breasts. But her eyes were dark, like pools of pitch. He felt his fine hairs stiffen at the sight.
"I wish it was that simple," she said quietly: "To find some peace, when all the killings done."
* * *
The camp was waking like an ants nest as she wandered through it. Men were shaving by the river. Cooking fires lent substance to the mist. The sky above was clear and cool. The day would soon grow warmer. But the leaves were turning gold and brown, and she sensed the edge of autumn in the air.
Dressed in her short tunic, she went over to the bank and hunkered down to fill the cooking pot. Other girls were servicing their cohorts just the same. The soldiers joked together and ignored them.
Zoe knew there was a battle brewing. The prospect brought an anxious little twinge. Not that she expected to be caught in any fighting. But chaos and confusion wouldnt get her back to Rome.
All summer, Italy had been in ferment. Another emperor had fallen. Someone called Vitellius held the throne. But now a rival general had challenged him for power. The empire was being rent by civil war.
To Zoe, all that mattered was the road to Rome itself. The lady Livia still tormented her. It wasnt just the bad dreams of the beatings. When Livia had thrown her out, shed started Zoe down a brutal path. Now the journey had to come full circle. Maybe, once the bitch was dead, her former slave would find relief at last.
When the legions crossed her path, shed tagged along with them. Her body was still hers to sell; the food and shelter were a fair exchange. These soldiers were still loyal to Vitellius, she learned. They might go marching back to Rome, once they had dealt with the rebellious army.
Hoisting up the heavy pot, she trudged towards the kitchens. Another camp-girl fell in next to her. Her name was Nadia: Zoe knew her vaguely. A Spanish slut with long dark hair and eyes that seemed to smoulder like hot charcoal.
She gave Zoe a sidelong glance. "How long before they get here, do you think?"
Zoe shrugged. The other girl seemed nervous. The growing threat was clear to them both. The soldiers were undisciplined and badly organised. If they failed to stand their ground, the worlds best arms and armour wouldnt save them.
As if in answer to her thoughts, the steely clash of swords rang through the mist.
Zoes muscles stiffened and her hand went to her hip but her gladius was not there to be grasped. The sword was wrapped in her pathetic bedroll. To be caught with such a costly blade might get her crucified.
The rasp of edges came again. A crowd of men were gathered by the trees. Zoe shared a curious glance with Nadia. The two of them went over for a look.
The legionaries had formed a circle, shouting eagerly. A pair of girls were fighting in their midst. One was a camp-follower, like Nadia and Zoe, with a shrewish face and muscular bare arms. The other girl was dressed like a Barbarian. She had a mane of red-gold hair, the long fringe hanging almost in her eyes.
As Zoe watched, the blonde girl lunged and slashed ferociously. Perhaps she wasnt used to the short gladius: the German peoples favoured longer swords. But the fury of her onslaught sent the camp-girl reeling back. The crowd changed shape to give her room. She caught herself, then waded in again.
"Ten sesterces on the slut!" the nearest soldier shouted. Another gestured urgently: "Another twenty on the German bitch!" Zoe curled her lip where she was standing at the back. Even in the field, these Romans needed to amuse themselves with Games.
There were other blonde girls watching from the far side of the ring. These were no camp-followers: they carried swords and wore Barbarian armour. Breastplates moulded to their tits which left their bellies bare. As well as trousers, most wore long black cloaks and capes of fur.
Zoe touched a soldiers arm. "Excuse me, master who are they?" she asked.
He glanced at her, then looked back at the fighting. "The Emperors own she-wolves, girl. Id stay well clear of them. Theyre warriors of the new praetorian legion. Even our commanders are afraid of them, I think."
Zoe nodded with a show of meekness. It tallied with the other things shed heard. Vitellius had been championed by the armies of the north, and some said he was just their puppet now. Many were resentful of his German bodyguard. She hadnt realised some of these were female.
The blonde girl in the ring was pressing forward once again. Her opponent blocked the blows, but she was tiring. Zoes gaze was drawn away as someone heeled a horse up to the crowd. Another German girl, but she looked grander than the rest. There was a silken tunic underneath her fur-trimmed cloak.
Her hair was paler than white gold, pinned up with one loose curl across her forehead. She watched the fight with cool blue eyes. Her poise was languid, haughty. The legionary next to Zoe spat into the dirt.
"Shes their leader. Calls herself Arminia, the bitch!" He noticed Zoes puzzled look and gave his head a shake. "Arminius was the German traitor who defeated Varus and three legions ..."
The sword blades clashed again, and the camp-follower cried out. She let go of her gladius as blood came welling out of her slashed biceps. The men whod bet on her opponent cheered delightedly. The German fighter gave a feline smirk.
"We call them Iron Virgins," said the soldier. "Attractive bitches, arent they? But Id sooner keep my balls."
Nadia gave a titter. "Iron virgins might get rusty!"
Unfortunately for her, the crowd had started breaking up. The fighter saw her mocking little glance. She pouted like a spoilt child and strode across the circle, her bloodied gladius swinging from her hand.
"What is there to laugh at, bitch? What were you whispering?"
Nadia went as pale as dough. The girl stalked up to her. She shoved the Spaniard in the chest. "You cringing cow. Lets have another match."
The soldiers seemed to think this was an excellent idea, while Nadias dark eyes flickered in alarm. "Give the little slut a sword," called someone gleefully. The German fighter gloated through her fringe.
"I guess youve been around men for too long," said Zoe calmly. "Or maybe its their dogs that you take after."
The girls blue eyes flared furiously. She brought her gladius up. Then a voice as clear as snowmelt cut across the circle. "Easy, Hilde. Let her arm herself before she dies."
Zoe flicked her gaze towards Arminia. The girl looked supercilious and amused. The pouting Hilde backed away and gave her sword a flourish. Zoe held her hand out and a gladius was put into her grasp.
She felt poor Nadia clutch her arm, and then she eased away, into the circle. Hilde waited in a fighters crouch. She didnt have a cloak, but wore her breastplate. Her naked arms were patterned with tattoos.
"Five denarii on the German!" shouted somebody, and half a dozen others echoed him. Hilde grinned as Zoe prowled towards her. She launched her onslaught like a pouncing cat. Zoe beat her off, her biceps rippling. The clash of steel resounded round the field.
The Germans eyes grew narrow. She was less complacent now. But the soldiers clearly thought it was a fluke. "Ten sesterces on the Virgin Wait, Ill double that!" One voice went the other way: "Ill put a gold aureus on the Greek!" Zoe focused on the blonde, not bothered by their lack of confidence.
She lunged and thrust, then skittered back. The German crabbed towards her. The soldiers yelled encouragement, but it felt like she and Hilde were alone. The Iron Virgin slashed at her in fury, and Zoe gave a gasp of fake dismay. She stumbled back another step to draw the blonde girl on, then jabbed the gladius towards her navel. Hilde sucked her stomach in, avoiding disembowelment by an inch. Before she could retaliate, the Greek girls sword flipped upward from her hand.
It was an old arena trick, distracting her opponent. Hildes eyes were fixed on it as Zoe snatched the gladius back again. She hacked the blade into the Virgins breastplate with force enough to empty Hildes lungs. The German reeled, and Zoe kicked her knee from under her. Then swung the pommel of her sword against the blonde girls jaw.
Hilde landed on her back amid a burst of cheering, mingled with the moans of all the men whod bet on her. Zoe looked across towards Arminia. The pale-eyed girl was smiling balefully.
A soldier had collected wagers in his upturned helmet. He passed it to the only man whod bet that the camp-follower would win. Zoe turned and saw that it was Sergius. The centurion eyed her thoughtfully. "I knew youd handled weapons in your time."
Zoe shrugged, then looked round as the horse came pacing past them. Arminia peered down disdainfully. "You fight well, for a whore," she said. "You should be in the palace. The Emperors harlot needs protecting too "
The horse walked on. The Iron Virgins followed. They glanced at Zoe mockingly, but some showed flashes of resentment too. Hilde was sitting in the dirt, her own look full of hatred. Zoe turned to Sergius again.
"Aye, Vitellius has a mistress ..." Sergius was sifting through his coins. "The noble lady Livia. Shes notorious already. The troops have songs about her shamelessness ..."
Zoe snorted, unimpressed. "I know a whore called Livia myself."
"Well this one killed her husband although nothing could be proved. And then her poor stepdaughter died as well. This woman has ambition, girl. She makes those Iron Virgins look like Vestals!"
Zoe was frowning to herself. "A stepdaughter, you said This Livia: what was her husbands name?"
"Gracchus Tullius, I believe. Now if youve finished playing soldiers, the kitchens are still waiting for their water."
Zoe nodded silently. Her body felt quite hollow. The soldiers were dispersing now, and Nadia had already scampered off. She weighed the gladius, staring at the glitter of the steel; then plunged the blade point-down into the dirt.
* * *
As the month wore on, she felt the winter looming closer. The golden days became as dull as lead. A chill wind rustled in the trees and set the dead leaves swirling. And then, out of the louring north, the rebel eagles came to challenge them.
Zoe watched the armies clash with queasy fascination. It was like the combats she was used to, only multiplied a thousandfold. A great arena packed with men, like herrings in a barrel. A seething mass of flesh-devouring steel.
The baggage train was in the rear, concealed by a deep hollow. The nervous camp-girls clustered round the carts. But some had scrambled to the rim to keep track of the fighting. Zoe lay in the long grass and felt her heartbeat thud against the earth.
The afternoon was waning now, as clouds the size of mountains drifted past. Dark leaves twisted in the wind. The armies clashed again. The Romans swarmed like woodlice in their segmented steel armour. An eagle glinted in a shaft of sun.
"Theyll tear each others guts out," whispered Nadia beside her. She sounded on the verge of tears. Like Zoe, she had never seen a battle.
The legionaries smashed together, yelling furiously. She wished she had her gladius to hand. She was used to fighting almost nude, but shed never felt so naked, despite the cloak and tunic which she wore.
A pair of horses galloped past, between them and the mêlée, and Nadia cowered deep into the grass. Arminia rode in front, her black cloak streaming in the wind. She still wore her silk tunic underneath. Her blonde head was uncovered, but her companion wore a helmet and her red-gold hair spilled out from under it. A visor with dark eye-sockets concealed her upper face. She glanced at Zoe as she passed. Her sullen mouth pursed tighter. It was Hilde.
"I guess theyre watching for deserters," Zoe murmured wryly. She felt her fingers itching for her sword. But part of her was pondering Arminias mocking offer. The Emperors harlot needs protecting too
"Oh," said Nadia in a small voice. "Look." She was staring at the battle-line again. Zoe looked and felt her heart contracting. The rebel troops had broken through. A mass of man was boiling straight towards them.
It was like a storm-surge, vast and grey. In moments they would be engulfed by it. Zoe grasped the Spaniards hand and dragged her down the slope. "Come on," she hissed. "Dont look back or youll die!"
The hollow was a muddy bowl, like many that shed fought in. But now she was a helpless girl with wild beasts in pursuit. They scrambled down amid the carts as the fighting reached the rim. The girls who hadnt moved as fast were speared and butchered as they tried to flee.
The soldiers rampaged down the slope and swept between the waggons. The camp-girls squealed aloud as they were caught up in the avalanche of steel. Nadia skidded in the mulch, and Zoe went down with her. Rolling in the trampled mud, she glimpsed the tide of slaughter at her heels.
The hapless sluts were cut down without mercy. A soldier sliced through one girls throat. Another jabbed his blade at a soft belly. A red-haired girl was punctured by a pilum from behind. She gave a sob of disbelief as the crimson point ripped out between her breasts.
Armoured bodies crunched in head-on impact. Vivid scarlet splashed the mud as Zoe wriggled underneath a cart. The air was full of gasps and grunts, the clang of steel on iron. Nadia panted next to her. They felt the waggon rocking on its wheels.
Then they heard more women screaming not in pain but fury. A troop of Iron Virgins rode full-tilt into the fray. Wielding swords and lances, they struck anyone in range, not caring that both sides wore the same armour. Zoe watched as blood was spattered from one cleaving blow. Each droplet seemed as perfect as a holly berry hanging in the air ...
Then she was crawling out again, before their shelter could become a trap. Hauling Nadia to her feet, she made a dash towards the naked trees. They passed the girl whod been impaled, her corpse now lying quiet. The split hem of her tunic showed her thigh.
"Gods have mercy!" someone wailed then gurgled with the impact of a lance. Zoe risked a quick look back. The thrust had spun a fleeing girl around. Blood spilled from the O of her shocked mouth as she collapsed. The Iron Virgins wheeled their snorting mounts.
An arrow struck one in the stomach, just below her breastplate. The girl grimaced beneath her helmet, throwing back her head. Zoe watched her topple from the saddle. Her body hit the trampled earth and filled the air with globules of mud.
She and Nadia scrambled on into the ragged wood. The day was fast declining but the fighting raged unchecked on every side. Zoes throat was tight, her heartbeat pounding. In the midst of bloody chaos, she knew only that she had to find her sword.
Beyond the wood, they passed a row of stakes and reached the tents. A sentry eyed them nervously, his torch already licking at the dusk. Zoe found her way to the centurions bivouac. There was no sign of Sergius. She wondered how he must be faring now. Her pack was bundled in a corner, with her gladius hidden in the bedroll. She took hold of her weathered staff, while Nadia waited anxiously behind her.
"We have to run," she told the Spanish girl. "The battles lost." Nadia bit her lip and nodded dumbly. They left the tent and scurried back towards the dusky wood. As they slipped between the trees, they heard the scuff of hoofbeats in the mulch.
Zoe dropped into a crouch, pulling Nadia down beside her. A file of horses passed in front of them. There was enough light left for her to see they were praetorians. The Virgins were withdrawing now they saw the day was lost. The girls were speaking in their own gruff language. Their black cloaks blended with the gloom, but Zoe glimpsed the paleness of their hair.
They were too close. What if the horses sensed them? Zoe started easing back and stepped on a dead branch. The dry snap carried through the wood. She froze instinctively. The nearest Virgins turned to look, then tugged their horses round.
Nadias fingers squeezed her arm. "Dont move!" she hissed, and broke into a run. The riders saw her flitting shape and took off after her, leaving Zoe crouched against the nearest tree.
The Spaniard must have known that there was no chance of escape. A Virgin pounded up behind her, thrusting with a lance. The point struck Nadia in the back with a thud that made her whimper. The impact swung her body round as the rider passed and jerked the weapon free. Nadia stumbled drunkenly as two more girls came at her. One lance drove into her belly, while the other punctured her left breast.
Her anguished scream made Zoe flinch. Her skewered body wriggled. Then she slumped and folded as the bloody points were dragged out of her flesh. Two of the riders trotted back to join their fellow Virgins. The third one prodded at the corpse before she followed them.
She giggled as she walked her horse past Zoe. It was the sound of someone drunk on blood. Zoe glowered at her from the shadows. Although the light had almost gone, she knew that it was Hilde.
The Virgins rode on through the wood. The battle was still raging in their wake. Zoe waited, breathing hard, then sidled after them. The bitches would head back to Rome. She made a silent vow to find them there.
The din of battle fell behind, though the fighting was still desperate. She climbed a slope and came out of the trees. A yellow moon had risen on the seething panorama. Zoe wavered, looking back then turned her face away, towards the dark.