Prologue: Maximus

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PROLOGUE

 INGLORIOUS

 The Roman Fort of Pinnata Castra

Northern Caledonia (Scotland)

  Winter, 118 AD

 

HE NEVER THOUGHT his death would be inglorious.

Knee-deep in gore, splattered in mud, and surrounded by clinging mist, with the howling of Pict warriors in his ears—Maximus Flavius Cato railed against his fate. Rage, hot and blistering, rose within him. He wasn’t ready to go yet. He had a future serving Rome—and these barbarians were about to rip it from him.

He’d envisaged his end would come as he fought under clear, blue skies, shouting the emperor’s name while he led his men to glory.

Not here in this forgotten, frozen shit-hole, brought down by savages.

The Picts surrounded him now, their eyes wild upon their blue-painted faces. Maximus’s belly cramped, an ice-cold knot tightening under his ribcage.

It’s over.

Five thousand soldiers had marched north into the wilds of Caledonia, and when they made their last stand that morning, only two centuries of his cohort remained: barely one hundred and sixty men to stand against the wrath of the northern tribes.

Thuds, grunts, and cries of battle filled the damp air. The mist curled in like steam drifting from hot baths. What was left of the Ninth had made their stand before the crumbling walls of Pinnata Castra—the fort Agricola had built many years earlier. High upon a ridge, surrounded by a dark pine wood, it felt like the end of the earth.

It was the end of the earth.

Maximus surged forward, slashing at the swarm of bodies clad in fur and leather, their limbs streaked in woad.

“Die!” He bellowed so loudly that it ripped his throat raw. It was the cry of a doomed man. But he was the pilus prior—the commander of what remained of the first cohort of the Ninth—and he wouldn’t crumble in front of his men.

The legate was no use to them now. That craven was hiding up in the watchtower behind them, cowering with his standard-bearers.

The legate—this legion’s imperial general—had pushed them into the wild north and argued with any who dared question him. He’d had deserters hunted down and stoned. But when the final stand came, where was he?

The fury within Maximus pulsed like a stoked ember. It made him feel invincible—as if nothing, not even a sharp Pict blade, could touch him.

The light was fading now, making visibility even more difficult through the tendrils of snaking mist. There was barely room to swing his sword, yet Maximus fought on, jaw clenched in iron determination. He slashed a Picti warrior across the throat. Blood gushed, coating them both, but he barely noticed. Raw anger turned him savage. If he was going to die today, he’d bring as many of these blue-painted bastards down with him as he could.

Maximus slashed and stabbed at any warrior who came within reach of his sword, aware then that he now stood alone. The men who’d fought at his shoulder were all dead. He brought down a woman who lunged at him with an iron-tipped pike—impaling her through the throat with his blade—before glancing behind him at the walls of the old fort. Had it been overrun yet?

There, above the lichen-encrusted walls, he saw the proud golden Eagle standard rising into the foggy gloaming. But as he watched, the Eagle listed and went down, disappearing from view.

Maximus’s belly clenched. With the Eagle went the hope of the Hispana, the empire’s mighty Spanish Legion. The Eagle standard was a symbol of honor for each centurion—and if they lost it, they lost everything.

The end had come. For him, and for the Hispana.

Roaring, Maximus whirled to face another attacker. An instant later, something heavy collided with the back of his helmet.

The last thing Maximus Flavius Cato saw before darkness claimed him was the muddy, blood-drenched ground rushing up to meet him.

 

***


There was only one thing worse than dying on the end of a Pict blade—and that was to live through the battle, only to be taken captive.

Maximus wasn’t alone. Two other centurions sat with him, wrists and ankles bound, slumped up against the wall. All three of them were injured and barely conscious. Maximus’s head hurt so badly that he felt sick. The back of his skull pounded in time with his heartbeat.

He was just about to close his eyes and let the pain consume him, when a woman walked into the hut.

Young, tall, and dark-haired, she was also beautiful. However, lust was the last thing on Maximus’s mind as he stared at her. Instead, fear slithered through his gut, threatening to overwhelm his outrage at waking up to find himself trussed up like a hog.

Her expression was blank, cold.

It was the same look—one devoid of mercy—he’d witnessed on a cat’s face once, right before it bit the head of a mouse clean off. Previously, the spoiled tom cat, his mother’s cherished pet, had been toying with the field mouse.

Maximus knew who she was; the interior of this wattle and daub hut had told him. He’d observed the strange hangings made of bones, teeth, and feathers; and the shriveled corpses of animals and birds that swung from the rafters. This woman was a witch—or bandrúi as she was known in this land.

And Maximus knew enough of the Painted People and their ways to realize he should fear her. Yet, arrogant to the last, he glared at the woman. The fury that had consumed him during the Ninth’s final stand still smoldered in his gut, seeking a chance to reignite.

The bandrúi had large, ice-blue eyes, rimmed with charcoal. Her face remained expressionless as she crossed the floor toward her three captives. The druidess had a loose-limbed walk. Her bare feet whispered on the dirt floor, her bone jewelry jangling. In one hand, she carried an earthen cup.

Her gaze went to Maximus first, and she dropped to a crouch before him, placing the cup on the ground next to her. He saw that it was full of a dark, viscous liquid.

“Inns dhomh na hainmean agad.”

Tell me your names. It was not a request, but a command.

She spoke the Pict tongue with a different, sharper cadence than Maximus was used to hearing. He’d learned the local language from the tribesmen who lived farther south when he’d been stationed at Trimontium for a spell.

For a moment, he considered defying the woman, but something in those empty eyes warned him against doing so. “Maximus.” His voice came out in a rasp. He was so thirsty he could barely swallow. His head hurt so badly that he had trouble even thinking. He’d lost all concept of time since the battle.

“And your friends?”

Maximus’s lip curled. Still staring the woman down, he nudged the man next to him with his elbow. He was a hulking cohort centurion with close-cropped, brown hair, who kept drifting in and out of consciousness. “She wants to know your names,” Maximus croaked.

A heavy pause followed before the centurion raised his battered face, his hazel eyes unfocused. “Cassian,” he mumbled.

The woman nodded before her attention shifted to the third prisoner: a tall, lean man with hawkish features and short, curly black hair. Blood encrusted the centurion’s chest from the wound he’d taken, but he was still awake and alert enough to snarl at the bandrúi, his white teeth flashing in the gloom. “Draco.”

The bandrúi sat back on her heels. “Maximus. Cassian. Draco.” She spoke their names slowly, rolling the unfamiliar words across her tongue, and then she shuffled back from them.

Using a blue-stained finger, the woman drew a crescent design upon the dirt floor between them.

“A blood moon rides tonight, and I have sacrificed three crows under it,” she announced, her voice as impassive as her face. The woman’s gaze snared Maximus’s once more. Now that she knew he understood her tongue, she focused upon him. “I drained their blood, burned their hearts, and gained the favor of the Gods … so that I may take vengeance upon our enemies.”

A chill walked down Maximus’s spine at these words, cooling the rage in his belly. There was power in this woman’s eyes, as if she could strip away his flesh with a word and bare his soul to her.

“What’s she muttering about?” the centurion Draco asked. He was glaring at the bandrúi, his face rigid.

Maximus hesitated before replying. He wasn’t sure what the witch’s words meant—only that death in battle would have been a mercy in comparison to what she had in store for them.

Fear’s long fingers clasped around his throat and gently squeezed.

Inglorious, indeed, he thought grimly. That’ll teach me to take a posting in Britannia. He could have gone anywhere in the empire, and yet he’d chosen its farthest flung, most savage corner. He’d had something to prove—and had once bragged to his younger brothers that he was heading off to ‘tame the barbarians’—but now he was paying for his arrogance.

“She’s about to kill us,” Maximus murmured after a lengthy pause, focusing on his companions properly for the first time since he’d awoken. He recognized both these men, for they’d formed part of his cohort. They were both good fighters from Hispania.

He suddenly wished that, like them, he was ignorant of these people’s tongue. Better not to understand this woman’s chilling words.

For she wasn’t yet finished with them.

“A curse be upon you three,” the bandrúi continued, her voice turning harsh. She picked up the cup and dipped her finger into it. Maximus realized then that the dark liquid was congealing blood—crow’s blood most likely. She leaned forward and drew a mark upon Maximus’s forehead.

Spitting out an oath, he shrank back from the woman’s touch. Yet injured and trussed up, there was nowhere to go. Likewise, his two companions endured the same treatment.

Maximus’s already pounding heart quickened further when he saw she’d drawn a crescent symbol upon their foreheads. He didn’t know the significance of such a mark, but understood that it didn’t bode well for any of them.

Some of the priestesses of his homeland wielded dangerous power—but he’d never feared a woman like he did this one. He’d prefer to face down a pike-bearing Picti warrior any day than this cold-eyed druidess.

“I was wrong,” he rasped. “The bitch is cursing us … before she kills us.”

“Let her,” Cassian said. His voice was a rattling wheeze. “Filthy barbarian witch.”

You three will endure eternal life,” the bandrúi intoned, oblivious to their insults. “Age will never touch you … but you are doomed to watch everyone you love wither and die. You are forever bound to the borders of these lands, and you will never father children. Eventually, you will live long enough to watch the world end.”

A hollow silence followed her words.

Maximus’s heart was thundering so violently now he felt ill. Like most of his people, he was superstitious. The witch’s words were outrageous, impossible, and yet he found himself believing them.

Another woman, many years earlier, had cursed his legion—Queen Boudicca of the Iceni—and the Hispana had been in decline ever since.

“Enough,” he snarled, his hard-won control finally unraveling. “Kill us, woman. Give us warriors’ deaths.”

The bandrúi’s mouth twisted, and she shook her head. “Arrogant man of the Caesars,” she snarled. “You march upon our lands with your bright shields, crested helmets, and red cloaks, and demand we kneel before you. You will suffer for your conceit. Death is too kind!”

Maximus stared up at her, at her terrible beauty. His head ached so badly now, he almost groaned out loud with the pain. Still, he didn’t break her stare.

Long moments stretched out, while the pair of them watched each other, and then a cold smile curved the bandrúi’s lips. It was the first expression to shatter her inscrutable mask, yet it was a terrifying one.

“You are one of their chieftains,” she observed finally. “I knew it when I took that strange helmet with a red fan from you.” Her gaze raked down over the leather harness, metal breastplate, and crimson cloak he wore, before she inclined her head. “You are brave … I shall give you that. The warriors said you fought like a cornered wolf before the walls. But it will not save you.”

Maximus’s mouth twisted. He’d fought with the savagery of a doomed man—there had been no glory in it. History wouldn’t remember Maximus Flavius Cato. The Empire had abandoned the Ninth, sacrificed them to the wild.

The woman then rose to her feet, towering above them. She wore a smirk upon her face now. “But, maybe, I will allow you a chance to save yourselves … a riddle.”

Maximus swallowed hard, heat washing over him as his temper flared once more. She was playing with him. He was that field mouse, with its tail pinned under the tom cat’s paw. His life was worthless to her.

“Remember my words well, Maximus,” the druidess continued, her smirk widening into a death’s-head grin. “For if you solve it, the curse will be broken.”

Maximus stared back at her. He refused to believe that a shred of mercy beat in her savage heart. This woman wasn’t really offering him hope. Yet he had no choice in this. All he could do was play her twisted game.

Holding the bandrúi’s eye, Maximus clenched his jaw and prepared to listen.


Copyright © 2020 by Jayne Castel



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