Warrior of Rome: The Amber Road

ISBN 13: 9780718155957

Warrior of Rome: The Amber Road

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9780718155957: Warrior of Rome: The Amber Road

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[Read by Stefan Rudnicki]

In the sixth novel in Harry Sidebottom's bestselling 'Warrior of Rome' historical fiction series, Ballista returns to undertake yet another epic mission--while the Roman Empire reels in chaos around him.

In AD 264, the Roman Empire has been torn in two. The western provinces--Gaul, Spain, and Britain--have been seized by Postumus, the pretender to the throne. To the east, on the plains of northern Italy, the armies of the emperor Gallienus muster, and he is keen to take his rightful place of power. A war between two emperors is coming, and everyone must choose a side.

On a mission shrouded in secrecy and suspicion, Ballista is sent by Gallienus back to his home of Hyperborea, the place of the people of his birth, to raise an army against Postumus. This means Ballista must journey along the Amber Road to the far north. Along the way Ballista meets a fearsome, masked warlord who attacks, bringing fire and sword against Ballista and his men. And in his home of Hyperborea, not all welcome Ballista's return. In the battle between Postumus and Gallienus, only one can survive and be emperor.

Renowned for their skilled blending of action and historical accuracy, Sidebottom's 'Warrior of Rome' novels take the reader from the shouts of the battlefield to the whisperings of the emperor's inner circle. Rich in detail and punctuated by harrowing action, these books will transport you back to the days of the Roman Empire.

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About the Author:

HARRY SIDEBOTTOM received his doctorate in ancient history at Corpus Christi College, Oxford. He has taught at various universities, including his alma mater, where he is now a fellow and director of studies in ancient history at St. Benet's Hall and lecturer in ancient history at Lincoln College.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

By the same author

WARRIOR OF ROME:

Fire in the East

King of Kings

Lion of the Sun

The Caspian Gates

The Wolves of the North

Copyright

To Peter Cosgrove and Jeremy Tinton

The Himling Dynasty

Prologue I

Gallia Belgica, AD262

Afterwards, towns always wear the same scars.

It had been too easy, Starkad thought. In the long, long voyage, only one ship had gone missing. There had been no Roman patrol boats in the Gallic Channel, no watchers on the bluffs flanking the estuary. The fishermen’s huts where they beached the longboats had been deserted. Not a soul had disturbed them as they laid up the remaining hours of the day. Only their bulky shadows and a vixen about her own murderous business had made witness to their march inland in the treacherous starlight. The small market town of Augusta Ambianorum was unwalled. No geese had cackled, no dogs betrayed the approach. Neither call of nature nor providential deity had pulled a citizen from his slumber to raise the alarm. The sea wolves had ringed the town, a party on each road. When the atheling Arkil was satisfied, he had made the signal. The Angles had set about their rapine with practised enthusiasm and the zeal of men long at sea. After the incomprehensible suddenness of the onset of catastrophe, it had proved a long night for many of the wretched women of the town, all too short and final for some of their men.

In the dead, grey half-light before dawn Starkad stood near the ornamental gate and looked back down the main street to the forum. Unlike many of the warriors, he had neither raided into the imperium nor served in the Roman forces before. The buildings were unusual to him: bigger, squarer, made of stone with tiled roofs. Yet otherwise it could have been a settlement on Scadinavia or around the shores of the Suebian Sea. There were all the usual signs of a sacked town: the kicked-in doors, the casually smashed heirlooms, the weeping women, small children wailing, and here and there the splayed, humped dead. The smell of spilt alcohol, of vomit, excrement and blood; the rankness of unwashed men. Starkad thought only a man of no imagination could regard what he and his companions had wrought and not consider the implicit threat to his own family, to his own home.

Clumsy and bleary with fatigue and drink, the Angles were shuffling into a column of some one thousand along the wide street. The eorls who commanded the ships chaffed the duguth, and each of the latter did likewise to the ten warriors under them. All were well laden with plunder. They were not taking too many captives with them. These were divided into two groups, one of young women, the other of men of all ages. That night the former had experienced a foretaste of their fate. If the male captives knew what their future held, the cowards among them might envy the lot of the women.

The crewmen of Starkad’s longship were all present and in some form of order, drawn up roughly five abreast and ten deep. He told his friend Eomer, the duguo of one of the tent-groups of ten, to take over, keep them from more drinking, and he walked off to the head of the column.

Arkil was talking to two of the eorls. Like all the Himling dynasty, Arkil was tall, very broad-shouldered, with long, blond hair. Like all the Himlings, his arms were bright with gold. The atheling smiled at Starkad. One of the eorls spoke.

‘Your crew are still slower than mine,’ Wiglaf said.

Starkad shrugged.

‘He is still a puppy.’ Arkil’s tone was light.

‘Twenty-five winters, you could hope for more,’ Wiglaf replied. ‘I said he was too young to be one of the duguth, let alone an eorl.’

Starkad smiled in a way he hoped conveyed the gathering senility of his elders. A big man himself, he had some confidence in his own skill at arms and his ability to exact obedience. He did not bother to point out his men had been tasked with the rounding up of prisoners.

The chiefs of the other fifteen ships began to come up in ones or twos. Arkil had a few words with each eorl. It was not just stature Arkil had inherited. All the Himlings of Hedinsey had the gift of commanding men in war. It came naturally to them. They were Woden-born. Even Starkad’s stepfather, Oslac, quiet, studious man that he was, had led several successful expeditions in his youth. Starkad’s thoughts ran from Oslac to his mother, Kadlin, and from her to his father. He did not want to think about his father.

Starkad looked at the arch spanning the road. It was a gateway that could not be shut and that connected to no walls, a thing of elaborate impracticality. In the torchlight its relief carvings shifted: men heavily armed Roman-style or stark naked killed trousered warriors whose faces were grotesquely bearded, almost bestial. Why had the townsfolk commissioned such a monument? Presumably they identified with the Roman fighters and had forgotten that once they had been free men, before the legionaries had massacred their trouser-wearing forefathers, taken their weapons and made them pay taxes. Starkad had little but contempt for men who paid others to defend them.

‘It has all been too easy,’ Starkad said.

‘And you would know,’ Wiglaf said. Some of the older eorls laughed.

‘The boy might not be wrong.’ Arkil was known as a thoughtful man. ‘No one can tell what the Norns have spun. Great misfortune often follows hard on the heels of success. But Morcar and I spied out this place last year on our way back from the west. We were thorough. Morcar questioned the locals we caught. He did not spare himself.’

Everyone smiled; some wincing at the thought of the ingenious cruelty Arkil’s half-brother delighted in using. Not all the Himlings were gentle.

‘It is fifty miles to Rotomagus, the same to Samarobriva. There are no Roman troops nearer than Gesoriacum, and that is further by road and its harbour has few warships. There was no burning in last night’s work. No beacons have been seen. There is no time for a message to reach Gesoriacum and the soldiers to return before we are gone.’

The chiefs nodded at the sagacity of the atheling.

‘There is nothing at which the gods can complain. We have promised much to Ran that she will spare us her drowning net, and Woden will have the rest and much booty on our return.’

A low hooming of approval at the old, stern ways of blood ran through the leading men.

‘We have done what we can by gods and man,’ Arkil said. ‘Put out the torches. It is time to get back to the ships.’

Starkad walked back past the first three crews to his own men. Although sitting casually, some even prone, they were in rough marching formation. None was drinking more than might be expected. The roped captives were huddled in the street between them and the warriors of the next longboat. At Starkad’s command, his followers began to clamber to their feet. They extinguished the torches, hefted their weapons and plunder and shouted at the prisoners until they got up as well.

At home the old men said that until the reign of the cyning Hjar, just three generations before, the Angles had gone to war in no great order. They said the Angles had brought discipline back from fighting for the Romans on the distant banks of the Ister in their great wars against the Marcomanni. Starkad found it hard to imagine his people going into battle in a chaotic mass no better than the primitive and savage Scrithiphini or the Finni of the far north. But he had no reason to think either the old men or the travelling scops who came to the halls of the Himlings and sang the deeds of Hjar should lie.

A war horn sounded, and the column, somewhat unsteadily, bunching and surging, started forward.

The light was strengthening as Starkad emerged from the gate into the necropolis. Like all young well-born men at the court of Isangrim, a little Latin had been drummed into him. The cyning himself could speak the language fluently, and his son Oslac, Starkad’s stepfather, was noted for his unusual interest in the poetry of the imperium. Starkad knew what the Romans called their burial grounds, but the previous night the stars had been too dim and his apprehension too tight to take his first view of one. As its name implied, the necropolis was a veritable city of the dead. As well as many sculpted and inscribed gravestones and sarcophagi, some columns and a couple of miniature pyramids, there were lots of small houses for the deceased. They began as soon as the homes of the living ended, and flanked the road as far as could be seen in the gloom.

It was all strange to Starkad. The Angles interred their dead in fitting barrows at a suitable distance from their settlements. There was something odd about this Roman necropolis nestling up to the town, something faintly disturbing about building houses for corpses as if they might still be alive. He had heard the southerners believed they would have no afterlife except flitting disembodied through the dark like bats or shadows. He wondered how their young men could bring themselves to endure the arrow storm or stand close to the steel with no hope of their courage and deeds bringing them to Valhalla.

As they cleared the necropolis, the horses of the Sun hauled her over the horizon. The dark fled away from her, as she herself ran from the wolf Skoll. The land spread out around; a cultivated, pleasant place of fields and meadows, rustic tracks and stands of trees. Buildings were dotted here and there; comfortable villas commanding fine views, more humble farms in sheltered spots. It was a fertile land, well worked, and Starkad admired their husbandry.

The road stretched on, and the sun shifted up. The morning was going to be hot. It was only five or six miles to the boats, but after the first the raiders were already suffering, their nocturnal excesses catching in their chests, making their feet shamble.

Starkad shifted the shield and pack slung over his back. It brought no ease. He did not care. He was happy. His discomfort was a measure of his success, and this road was the start of his journey home. It would be good to be back. There were no problems between him and his stepfather, and he loved his mother. As was the custom of the north, he had spent several years of his youth in the hall of his maternal uncle. Heoroweard Paunch-Shaker lived up to his name: a huge, jovial bear of a man, a legendary drinker, and, despite his girth, a warrior to be feared. In most ways he was the father Starkad had never known. It would be good to return to him – and to his mother – in triumph. And then there was Heoroweard’s son, Hathkin. Starkad and Hathkin were of an age, had grown up together and could not be closer. Certainly Hathkin meant more to Starkad than the younger half-brother and half-sister his mother had given Oslac.

The road breasted a rise. On the reverse slope a broad sward ran down to a line of mature trees. It was in a clearing in this wood the previous night that the vixen had watched their passing. They were getting on for halfway back.

‘Shieldwall! Form on the atheling!’

Starkad was repeating the call down the column before he realized its meaning.

‘Shieldwall! Form on the atheling!’

The threat must be ahead. Starkad calmed himself, thought quickly. His was the fourth crew in the column. He must go to the right. He remembered the prisoners. The fucking prisoners. They were his responsibility. He made rapid calculations.

‘Eomer, your men stay with the prisoners. When the line is formed, bring them up behind us.’

The command was acknowledged with a wave.

The crew in front was already moving off to the left. Starkad gestured to the rest of his men to follow him and set off at an encumbered jog, angling off the road. The grass underfoot was long. It caught at his legs. He hoped he had done the right thing. There were eighty captives. Eomer had ten men. But the prisoners were roped; half of them were women. Starkad put it out of his mind, concentrated on bringing his men to the correct place.

There was Wiglaf’s red draco, flying bravely. Starkad panted up beside the right hand of Wiglaf’s warriors. Blowing hard, like a close-run animal, he motioned his forty men into position. They jostled into a line ten wide and four deep, then dropped their packs and sacks of loot, planted their spears in the ground and took their shields in their left hands. A violent retching, and a man stepped forward and threw up. A moment later another followed. Some laughed.

Starkad’s standard-bearer was beside him. He looked up at the white snake his mother and her women had sewn for him. The draco writhed; its tail lashed. Starkad had not noticed the westerly breeze get up. The next crew were shuffling together on his right. So far nothing had gone wrong. Finally he had time to assess the cause of the alarm.

The enemy were drawn up in front of the wood. A long line of oval white shields marked with a red design. Steel helmets glittered in the sun, and above them a mass of spearheads. Over all, various standards – again, all white and red – flew. A knot of horsemen stood out before the centre; a large draco floated over them. There were about two hundred paces of open grassland between the forces.

Starkad shaded his tired eyes and peered across the gap. He caught the shimmer of mail between the shields. The enemy were arrayed several ranks deep. He estimated the width of the enemy formation, then stepped forward and looked along the almost-formed Angle shieldwall. Roughly the same width, so the numbers should be about equal. He moved back into his place.

‘The Horned Men,’ one of the older warriors said to Starkad. ‘Your first Romans, and they turn out to be our cousins. Most auxiliary units of cornuti are recruited in Germania. They may well be Batavians.’

Starkad grunted. Apart from their shields being oval, not round, and all bearing the same design, they did not look much different to the Angles.

‘A double-strength cohort, should be about a thousand men,’ added the older man.

What sort of child did old Guthlaf take him for? It was not as if he had not stood in the shieldwall and faced the ranks of the fiend before. He could estimate numbers, and an enemy was an enemy. Starkad turned away and pretended to watch Eomer bringing the captives up.

‘Someone is coming over.’

A lone rider was walking his mount slowly across to where Arkil’s big standard – the white horse of Hedinsey – flew at the centre of the line. He held his spear reversed in one hand and some sort of staff in the other.

‘The thing he is carrying is their symbol of a herald. He wants to be sure we will not kill him out of hand.’

Starkad was fast running out of patience with Guthlaf.

‘How did they get here?’ a voice in the ranks asked.

Starkad had no idea. ‘Silence in the wall. Let us hear what he has to say.’

The rider took his time but eventually reined in a short javelin cast from Ark...

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