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Authors: Michael R. Hicks

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“I’m not even sure why the Emperor bothers with us.” Another of the guards, Septimus Cominius, commented sourly, as he always did when they played this game. Septimus held the rank of
optio
, one step below that of centurion. Like the other guards, he was a veteran, but was also a longtime brother in arms to Centurion Tullius. Plain faced, bordering on homely, out of uniform he could have blended into any side street in Rome, which was an attribute he had put to good use more than once in his career. Unlike Tullius, who was little taller than Valeria but boasted the powerful body of a wrestler, Septimus was of average height and so thin that one might have thought he would barely be able to swing a sword, and it was a misconception that had served him well on more than one occasion. “I don’t understand how that devil beast does it. I even put double the number of trip lines and noisemakers out in the garden to catch him this time. Bugger all.”

Centurion Tullius winced at his subordinate’s language, and his scowl grew deeper. “We need to do better. It’s a game for the princess and this overgrown pussycat, but for us it’s training…and a warning. If Hercules can creep up on us, an assassin can, too.” He looked at Paulus. “The bees were funny, but you have to harden yourselves against any distraction. If some wench walks up to you with her chest bared when you’re on duty, you’d better be looking for the knife she’s holding behind her back, not staring at her…” He glanced at the princess, then glared at his men. “You know what I mean.”
 

Valeria sighed, hearing the self-recrimination in the centurion’s voice. She had known him her entire life, for Tullius had served under her father since long before she had been born. The centurion’s exterior facade was hard and unyielding as his armor, and she knew he would not hesitate to burn a city to the ground and put every one of its inhabitants to the sword to safeguard her life. But she had also known the kind, thoughtful, and loving man who dwelled within. “Uncle Marcus,” she said, using the informal title that always made him wince in public, but that she knew he privately adored, “you are too hard on yourself. Hercules is not a man. He’s the world’s greatest predator, favored by all the gods, and his winning the game is in no way a poor reflection on you or your men.” With a sly smile, unable to help herself, for she knew how prudish her uncle could be, she added, “Just be glad he doesn’t have
breasts
or your men wouldn’t stand any chance at all.”

Tullius rolled his eyes heavenward as his men fought to restrain their laughter. “Gods save me from you, girl.”
 

It was then that an elderly man with silver hair and skin as black as his spotless tunic was white approached the edge of the garden and bowed deeply.
 

“Time for your studies, I see,” Tullius said, heaving a sigh of relief. “And about time, too.”

“Don’t be cross, uncle,” Valeria told him with a smile, taking his arm and letting him lead her across the garden toward the entrance to the imperial palace and the elder scribe awaiting them. “It does not become you.”

With a mewling grunt of disappointment at no longer being the center of Valeria’s attention, Hercules got to his feet and walked beside her, his six-legged gait slowed to match hers. The other men of the guard, led by Paulus, fell into formation behind them. She reached out and ran her hand through the hexatiger’s thick fur, marveling anew that the gods had blessed her with such a companion. Valeria had been only five years old, traveling with her mother to her father’s latest posting in one of the southern provinces, when she had found him. During a stop for the caravan to gather provisions, Valeria, thinking herself a great explorer, took her guard by the hand so that she might investigate the nearby forest. There, not far from the supply point where the caravan had stopped, she came upon a sickly, starving tiger cub that was clearly near death, its mother nowhere to be found.
 

But it was not just a tiger, she immediately saw. It was a hexatiger, a very, very rare animal that Pelonius, her tutor, had later told her was a gift from the gods after the world began to recover from Vulcan’s Fury. Hexatigers, he had said, were one of many animals that had not existed before that ancient cataclysm, and had been sent by the gods to replace some of the animals they had destroyed in their anger at Man. Her finding the cub was an omen of momentous import. Valeria’s mother, after getting over the shock that her daughter had been wandering about the forest with aught but a single guard to protect her, commanded that all would be done to nurse the cub to health. And so it was that by the time they reached Valeria’s father, Hercules was an energetic, toothy bundle of orange, black, and white fur that was inseparable from the young girl.

Now Hercules was bigger than a horse. Not a single man of her guard detail was tall enough to see over his back. She had often ridden him when she was younger, and while he had never seemed to mind, she eventually came to the conclusion that to do so was a terrible indignity to visit upon such a magnificent creature. She clearly remembered her parents breathing a great sigh of relief the day she announced she would no longer treat Hercules like a common draught animal. Hercules went with her nearly everywhere, and everyone, especially Marcus Tullius, firmly believed the beast had been sent by the gods to protect the child. From what, however, no one knew.

Tullius bobbed his head toward the silver-haired man in the white tunic. “Greetings, Pelonius. Thank you for coming to save what little remains of our dignity.”

“Ah, centurion,” Pelonius, chief scribe to the Emperor, said with a smile, “I take it that the fearsome beast again took you to task?” Hercules very gently butted his massive head against the old man’s chest, and was rewarded with a vigorous scratch behind the ears. “Hercules, you must at least pretend to let them win once in a while.”

“Pelonius,” Valeria said, “I want to see my father before we begin our lesson for the day, if you wouldn’t mind.”

Paulus, directly behind her and at the head of the guards, groaned. “Please tell me you’re not going to bother the Emperor about that silly business in Aquitania that caught your fancy.”

She turned and favored him with her best glare, squinting her eyes and scrunching her lips together. “I most certainly am. And why not? Father won’t mind. Come on, Paulus, you must admit that it sounds intriguing!”

He shook his head. “It’s just another attempt by a bunch of discontent provincials to get the Emperor’s attention, and yet more proof that you’ll use any excuse to try and get away from the capital.”

“Of course, I will,” she pouted. “It’s so boring here.”

“Aquitania?” Pelonius’s bushy eyebrows shot up. “Ah, yes, now I remember. Strange goings-on have been reported along the coast. Sightings of odd beasts upon the land and in the sea, that sort of thing, wasn’t it?”

“Yes,” Valeria nodded, that single word laden with the breathless excitement she had felt building inside her since she had first heard the rumors from one of her friends, a daughter of a senator, who had overheard her father discussing a report from a business associate in Aquitania. Rome was the greatest of the Empire’s many cities and a marvel to behold, for certain, but it was all old hat as far as Valeria was concerned. Performances at the Colosseum, be it stage plays or gladiators in combat. Boring. Parties and social gatherings, to which endless invitations were extended to the Emperor and his family. Boring. Visiting the temples to pray to the gods. Boring. Listening to government functionaries babbling in the palace, or having senators old enough to be her grandfather trying to woo her, or woo her on behalf of their sons or grandsons. Boring. “You at least have the prospect of some excitement deploying with the legions,” she told Paulus. “But I’m trapped by the status of my birth, just as much as any slave.”
 

Pelonius looked at her, his outward expression unchanged, but disappointment reflecting clearly in his eyes. He had been born into slavery, and after many years of servitude had been granted his freedom by her father, who had at last come to the conclusion that while animals such as horses and oxen were given by the gods for men to use as they would, other men were not. From that day on, the Emperor was served only by free men and women. But granting Pelonius and the other palace slaves their freedom had ignited a political war with the Senate that was still being waged, and it was yet unclear if the Emperor would emerge the victor.
 

“Forgive me, Pelonius,” she said bowing her head in shame. “That was a thoughtless thing for me to say.”

“You need not ask forgiveness, princess,” the old scribe told her, reaching out with a hand to gently raise her chin so their eyes could meet, “for there is truth in what you say. You were born into a gilded cage, just as I was born into one of rusty iron. Neither of us were then free to choose our destiny.” He held his arms out as if embracing the world. “But look at me now. I am free of my cage and I am in the service of the Emperor himself as a free man, his personal scribe and tutor to his daughter and ward.” Taking gentle hold of her shoulders, he said, “You are in your gilded cage now, child. But someday you will work open the door and make your own flight to freedom, wherever it may lead you. But until then,” he said, dropping his voice, “remember that your cage is of gold, that you sleep in a soft bed with every comfort, and not in the filth of a slaver’s pen, your back lashed with a whip.”

“Yes, Pelonius,” she whispered. Last year he had taken her, with a doubled guard, of course, to tour the slave market as part of her education. “You cannot truly be Roman until you understand the darker side of what that means,” he had told her. He had not just shown her the auction pits, which was all that most people saw. He had taken her to see the pens and cages where the slaves were kept before they were sold to their new masters, the flogging posts where they were tortured, and the hellish ships that brought many of them to the capital. It had been a horrifying experience, and since that day she had prayed for her father’s success in his battle to abolish it.
 

Pelonius, as if reading her mind, smiled, the bright white of his teeth gleaming against the deep black of his skin. “Come now, let us go see your father about these mysterious goings-on in Aquitania.”

CHAPTER TWO

Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus, Emperor of Rome, stood alone in his private study. While the throne room (such was it still called, even though no king had ruled Rome for centuries) and most of the other chambers here in the palace were festooned with columns, statues, and tapestries befitting the grandeur of his office, his study was spartan, the furnishings comfortable but utilitarian. This one room reflected the soul of a soldier, one who had risen to the highest rank over a long and glorious military career that had finally led him here. On one wall hung a great map of the known world that occupied his attention, and for a moment he imagined his distant predecessors doing just the same, reflecting upon the past while considering the opportunities and perils of the future.
 

Of course, their maps of the world, drawn before Vulcan’s Fury had been unleashed, would have been far different from his own. If the historians could be believed, at least three thousand years had passed since the God of Fire’s great hammer had struck from the heavens to cleanse and reshape the Earth. The old Roman Empire had been completely destroyed, along with Greece, Egypt, and the other ancient civilizations nurtured by the Mediterranean Sea, and everything beyond. Nothing had been spared, from the frozen wastes of the far north to the tropics of Africa and the distant, mythical Orient. All had been consumed by titanic ocean waves that scoured clean the land, or volcanic eruptions that filled the sky and covered the land with lava and ash. The initial cataclysm had been followed by the Endless Winter, which buried the entire world in frozen white for many, many years, and drove Mankind to the very brink of extinction.
 

How his ancient forebears had survived, and where they had been to avoid the great catastrophe, no one knew precisely. Some believed that a legion in Britain, together with some of the barbarians there, had weathered the great storm. Others thought the Survivors had been scholars in Alexandria on an expedition in some far corner of the empire, or in a caravan taking goods along the Silk Road. Regardless of whom they had been, when the First Spring came at last and the snow and ice began to melt away, the descendants of the Survivors emerged into the sunlight and gave great thanks to the gods.
 

As the world’s blanket of frozen white receded, the people saw that the land and seas had been transformed, rendering every map in their possession utterly useless. Even the positions of the stars were different, the constellations having moved in the sky as if the Earth had fallen over on its side. The flora and fauna were also greatly changed, save for those species the Survivors had managed to preserve in their underground sanctuaries. Many animals and plants recorded in the histories had disappeared, and over time others — often strange, frightening, and sometimes deadly — began to appear, as if the gods were filling in some of the gaps with new animals to replace those they had taken away.

Throughout their long ordeal, the Survivors and their descendants had preserved much of the history of what had once been Rome, and had never stopped thinking of themselves as Roman. And, as Romans, they were builders, explorers, and conquerors, well suited to the challenges of taming the new world into which they emerged.

And so, over the centuries that followed, they had. It had not, of course, been a bloodless conquest, for the gods had left other survivors upon the world. Some had been easily vanquished, while others had come close to destroying the newly rebuilt Rome, nearly finishing what the gods had started. But, in the end, Rome had triumphed. Fifteen years before, Tiberius himself, then a general of the army, had seen to Rome’s final victory, bringing the southern barbarians to heel and solidifying Rome’s hold over the entire known world. As he stood now, looking upon the map before him, the world was one tremendous land mass bounded by great seas, beyond which lay the ends of the Earth.
 

BOOK: Vulcan's Fury: The Dark Lands
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