Sins of the Fathers Part I
by Martin Hall
The Camp of the II Augustus Victrix Legion, 30 miles south-west of Numa
Licinius Aurelius Montanus' helmet hurtled through the tent flap and hit the table with a deafening crash, bouncing away unnoticed to the floor. The commander stormed through his tent, hurling his cloak aside as he slumped into his chair. As he drew in a deep ragged breath and let it out in a long, infuriated hiss, he ran his hands through his coppery hair, the mark of his accursed birth.
"Valeria." The word was dropped from his lips without any thought. His slave promptly stepped forward from the recesses of the tent, her hands clasped demurely in front of her, her blonde hair pushed away from her forehead by a silver diadem that complimented her pale skin. She was unused to the southern heat, taken from the northern tribes on one of Licinius' conquests. Licinius paid her no heed as he stared directly ahead, slumped awkwardly in his seat.
"What news from the Senate?" she asked quietly, fearful of her master's mood.
"My father" Licinius stopped, smiling bitterly at the standard of the Legion, sticking at a strange angle from the mud outside the tent. " My father recognises me as his son, but he states that I will never be his heir. Licinius the Bastard, they call me. I hear them whisper it, and all because that whore Octavia bore him a mewling whelp blessed by the law of the gods and the Republic. Politics. I have had my fill, Valeria. I have taken the soldiers of the Republic to the farthest edges of the world, seen men under my command bleed and die for the glory of Numa, and for this I am rewarded with nothing!" He drove his hand down onto the table hard, the wood splintering into his fist with the force.
Valeria's expression did not even flicker. She merely reached aside for a bandage and a bowl of water as if her master attacked his furniture in futile rage every night. "And of the Legion?" she asked, as she turned his hand over and began to pick at the splinters. Still he stared ahead.
"We leave tomorrow for Luthinium. The senate fears the presence of the Legion close to the capital in these troubled times. I think they fear for themselves rather than the stability of the Empire."
Valeria leaned across her master, and her eyes looked boldly into his. Her gaze remained locked for several moments, neither of them moving, before she asked her next question. "And what now for you?" Licinius raised his chin from his hand, a faint smile playing about his lips.
"Me? I feign love for my father, and obedience to the wishes of these fools. The time is not now. My men have no great love for the Senate, but would not dare to raise arms against the Empire." Licinius stared ahead as Valeria gently teased the splinters from his hand. "They cannot stand in my way forever, Valeria. My time will come."
Flexing his hand, the general stood, frowning. For some reason, he could not look her in the eye. Uneasy in his tent, he paced out into the camp, casting his eye about for his centurions. It was time to move. Numa was too close, and the city's presence sickened him.
The winter camp of the II Augustus Victrix Legion, 2 days west of the Weissberg Mountains; that winter
The snow fell gently across the camp, gathering in clumps in the quiet spaces, spotting into water near the fires and the muddy trails the auxiliaries created as their horses' hooves pounded the hard earth into soft mud. Valeria caught snowflakes and watched them melt on her fingertips with child-like fascination. The night air outside Licinius' tent was crisp and clear, blown down from the distant mountains.
"What are you thinking?" Licinius stooped, ducking under the banners of the Legion as he left the tent, a heavy fur draped over his arm. He offered it to Valeria. She looked down at her own bare arms, the flesh raised in bumps, and smiled.
"I am sorry, master. I saw the snow, and came outside to smell it. It has been a long time since I saw snow." Her eyes shone in the firelight, regret fading into the darkness around their edges. She took the cape from Licinius, her head bobbing in meek thanks. As he passed it across, he held onto her hand and looked her in the eyes.
"I thought we agreed. No more of this 'Master' business. You're free. When Tertullian sought to murder me and take the Legion to Numa, you could have helped him. He would have given you all you wanted in exchange, when he had taken the Empire for his own." He looked away, his eyes following the snow from the swollen clouds. He spoke more softly than he was accustomed to. "Yet you saved my life. I am without position in the courts. All I could offer you was freedom."
She looked across at Licinius and shrugged. "It's all I ever wanted."
"Yet you stay."
She moved closer. "I never said I didn't want to stay. It's nice to have the choice."
Licinius found her hand again, shrouded in fur and darkness. She was warm for such a cold night. Then he turned, and saw the herald.
The man made him gasp in surprise. Dressed in the light blue tunic of his father's messengers and dressed for Numa, he shivered in the harsh air of the north. His hands were caked in blood, and it dripped steadily from them onto the snow. The man was not wounded.
He squinted up at Licinius and Valeria. "Licinius Aurelius Montanus?"
Licinius nodded warily, his hand moving to free his sword from his cloak. Something was wrong. "Yes?"
The herald thoughtlessly rubbed at his arms, stopping as he realised he was simply smearing his frozen limbs with blood. He stood up straight, the wind tearing at his thin clothes. "Your father commands you to meet with him in Numa. At once."
Licinius shook his head. "I cannot. In two weeks, the fleet will be constructed, and ready to invade the isles in the mists to the north. We hear wild tales from fishermen of monsters, and morale is low among the auxiliaries. I will not desert my men simply to satisfy my father's whims."
The herald smiled oddly, holding up his bloody hands. "I assure you, general, it will take but a moment. If you will permit me" The man reached out into the air in front of him and moved his fingers as if attempting to gain purchase. Sweat beaded on his brow. There was a smell of meat. Licinius drew his sword and made sure he was between the herald and Valeria. His eyes widened as blood began to drip from thin air onto the snow beneath the Herald's hands. Licinius caught his breath as the herald teased a hole in the air itself, spattering the muddy snow with the blood of the universe itself.
"Sorcery!" he hissed.
The herald laughed slightly, preoccupied with opening his pathway. "Miracles have been known to happen, General. Numa is more the centre of the world now than ever, and your father ah." He tugged slightly at the bloody hole in the air, tearing a rip taller than a man out of it. A featureless void was barely visible on the other side. The herald held out a wet hand for Licinius to grasp, and in his other he held up the seal of Montanus, which he produced from his stained satchel. "Your father commands you to Numa to learn from him. As I did."
Licinius stepped back. "Where does that hole lead?" He heard Valeria's feet softly crush the snow as she moved closer behind him.
"To Numa. Anyone who steps through will be in Senator Montanus' villa in a matter of minutes."
Licinius looked at the dripping gateway. "Impossible. Nothing save the will of the gods could pluck a man from these barbarian lands to Numa."
The herald nodded heavily, as if considering Licinius' words. "What if I were to tell you that the gods have granted your father this power, power to teach to those he deems worthy, such as his favoured son?"
"My father favours me little, herald. If your gate is the miracle you claim, bring me proof."
The herald bowed low. "As you command." He then stepped back into the hole, closing his eyes as he went. The hole snapped shut wetly behind him. Licinius turned to Valeria.
"This is dangerous. The fleet leaves in spring for the northern isles. See if you can find a vessel to take you there now. Offer them anything they need. Take my gold, and leave tonight. If this man is capable of appearing and disappearing in the middle of my camp, then my father's men can be anywhere. You mentioned wise men in the northern tribes who know magic."
Valeria blinked once, pushing her hair back out of her eyes. "Superstitions, surely. You said"
Licinius looked at the blood on the ground and ran a hand across his chin. "Forget what I said. Forget everything. Find a wise man, and ask him if he has ever heard anything of this. Keep away from it, Valeria. I would rather have you beyond my reach and safe than dead in my arms." He grabbed her by the arms and looked into her eyes. "Go. Tonight. Ask Caecillian for help, he is my trusted man. I shall await this herald."
Valeria turned away to the tent, then turned back, her voice cracking. "How will you find me in the North?"
Licinius smiled. "I know you, Valeria. I will find you. I swear it."
As she walked away, he failed to notice the spot of blood on her cloak.
Numa, at the Villa of Senator Montanus; later that winter
Two men paced along the colonnade that framed the courtyard, watching the rain that fell over the delicate and exotic plants in the garden. One was older, larger than the other, rings jammed onto his clumsy red-stained fingers, draped in extravagant robes. The younger man was dressed as a herald, and ran a similarly red hand through his hair, anxious.
"Senator? Your son."
The older man stopped, and swayed his bulk towards his servant. "What of my son? Licinius has demonstrated skill in the month he has been here. He shall learn the craft well, Decimus."
Decimus licked his lips. "He does demonstrate skill, in that you are correct. He is already beyond my abilities, and they whisper that he is second only to you now."
Montanus' brows furrowed as he smoothed his purple robe over his belly. "What do you mean, Decimus?"
"His skill grows by the day. It is likely that within a year Licinius the Black will be a greater sorcerer than you yourself. He is popular among the students, and is starting to win friends in the other noble families. He will never serve faithfully if he believes he can attain a greater position than his master."
Montanus looked across the lawn, where his winter-shackled garden felt Numa's soft rain. "Very well. Remove distractions from his study, but preserve hope in him. Without hope, he will become desperate. Above all, Decimus, use discretion. Send him to me this evening. I shall teach him the secret of our power, and his loyalty shall be mine when I make my move." The senator turned to go inside, pulling his robes tight around himself. "Make sure of this, Decimus."
Decimus bowed low to hide his scowl. "As you wish, senator."
at the villa of Senator Montanus; that evening
The room was low and dark, a warm place at the heart of the expansive villa. Candles studded the mosaic floor, and curved lines were picked out upon it in red ceramic. Licinius shifted the sleeve on his formal robe again, his mouth turned up in distaste at Numan fashion. In the centre of the room his father stood, illuminated in the ghoulish glare of the candles like some ancient devil. On seeing Licinius, he smiled.
"What is this place?" Licinius barked, his eyes taking in the floor.
Montanus waved his hands at the candles, flourishing like a cheap actor. "Among the savage tribes of the east, we heard rumours of a cult of demon-worshippers. Creatures of fire and air, disaster and blood."
Licinius held up his hand, stained red forever by the secrets he had learned. "Demons?"
Montanus went on, ignoring his son. "The Senate paid no attention to the rumours. After all, you will concede that they sound unbelievable. Then four hundred auxiliaries died at the hands of a handful of barbarians, and the survivors raved of horrors they could barely articulate. This got our attention.
"Very few cultures are prepared for a thoroughly waged war, and these tribesmen were no exception. Land was denuded, villages were burned, the ground was salted. The Legions swept across their land like a plague of locusts while we worked in Numa to keep their presence secret. Eventually, we found the cult. Their secrets were pried from them, then they were put to death. Simply and without fuss, on the wild fringes of the empire. We discovered the source of their abilities. They dealt with creatures, creatures capable of granting powers beyond the wit of man to fathom, but these creatures were no more demonic than you or I."
Licinius looked at the candles and red tile circles on the floor. "How can you be certain?"
Montanus frowned and held up his blood-red hands. "Is it not obvious? I contacted them. They granted me the powers I taught to you. I have seen them, and they are not devils. They are not human, but they are not devils."
Licinius looked at his hand in horror. "How did you contact them?" he asked, his voice laden with quiet trepidation.
Montanus snapped his fingers, and a man dressed in priest's robes shuffled forward. He held a large, elaborately carved wooden box reverently in both hands. Montanus gently prised the lid open and reached inside.
"We contacted them with this."
The North; at the same time
The herald Decimus cursed under his breath as he staggered through the snowy wastes, his frozen hand held up in front of his face. The blizzard drove hard at his tunic, tearing at him. His toes were numb in his sandals. Why here, he thought. Why did she have to come here? His stumbling walk rendered him all but oblivious to his surroundings, his eyes screwed shut against the screaming icy wind. He jumped when he heard a voice in front of him speak in Thean.
Decimus breathed a visible sigh of relief and felt the reassuring rub of the dagger in the small of the back. He held up his hands, the wind battering him upright. "Peace! I come bearing a message from Licinius! He asked me that I should bring the lady Valeria to him in Numa."
The razor-sharp flash of a drawn Gladius came as something of a surprise to Decimus as it lunged at him out of the blinding snow-grey night. In a second, his head fell to the snow at his feet and the snow stained dark red. The herald's corpse toppled sideways. Drawing his cloak tightly around himself, Caecillian bent low to wipe his blade on the man's tunic and search the body. Finding the knife, he tossed it contemptuously into the darkening night and turned to resume his walk back to the small hut where Valeria slept. The soldier closed his eyes and sighed wearily. Smothered by the blizzard, he did not hear the scream of a portal torn open on a hillside nearby. The man who had watched Decimus stepped through, returning to Numa in a matter of seconds.
the Senate, three weeks later
"Montanus, this plot of yours is too dangerous." The tall man leaned on his staff, his face weathered and dry. He looks more dead than alive, Montanus thought.
"Senator Draco," he purred, his words smooth and sincere, "the Imperator has too much power, and we have taken the first steps toward reclaiming that power." He held up his red right hand. "But they are not the only steps. Am I not right, Castillus?"
A younger man nodded and hoisted himself up from the marble bench where he lay, dressed in a light summer toga. He patiently smoothed his robes as he stood, poise and vanity evident in his handsome features. As he looked to Montanus, fire glowed from within his eyes. "Sadly, while we are more than human, I must agree with Montanus. Sometimes, the older methods are more effective."
Draco scowled darkly, tightening his grip on the staff. It rotted to dust in seconds, and the marble beneath his feet darkened and cracked. "If we need to dispose of the Imperator, I do not see why we cannot do it ourselves. What have we to fear from ordinary men?"
"And what would we do? The Praetorian Guard would be on us in seconds, and we would stand no chance. Even together, we would be identified. The Senate fears us, Draco. With an excuse, they could have us hanged. We are not enough in number yet. One man, acting alone, driven mad, would be enough to silence the Imperator and place a puppet of our choosing in his place."
Castillus looked around the darkened senate building, boredom evident on his face. "And would you have Licinius be our puppet, Montanus?"
Montanus stifled a laugh. "Licinius? No. My son is too wilful, and Licinius the Black's ambition is well known. He is no puppet. No, my friend. He is our assassin."
Castillus smiled. "You would sacrifice your son for your own political ends?"
"It would be the very least I could do."
Draco emitted a hoarse wheezing cough. "When? When is the time? My men are ready. They can have him five minutes after the murder, provided you keep track of him."
Montanus sighed and sat on the marble bench. Still warm, he thought, then looked at Castillus. Of course. "Not yet. Decimus failed in his mission, so I must send someone else. Senator Draco, I may have need of one of your guard."
Castillus looked deeply into his palm distractedly, and a small flower of flame twisted itself up into the air. "What of his legion? They are fiercely loyal to the bastard. They will defend him. If we harm him, they will storm Numa."
Montanus kept his eye on the flame flower as it shifted into the shape of a dove. "Do you never tire of your party tricks, senator? As for the Legion, do not worry about them. My man has them under control." He stood and moved slowly away from the group. "Give me a month, and the Empire will be ours once and for all. This I promise you."