“I myself dismounted more slowly, but had both feet on the ground when two of my captors’ attackers came for me. I had loosened the bundle atop my horse’s rump the moment the attack had begun, and now reached inside for something, anything, to parry the thrusts which were shortly coming.
“That something which I used to check my nearest opponent’s blade, that something which I then instinctively tossed at his head, turned out to be a golden chalice. The gold was pure enough to be dented by a swung sword, and heavy enough to knock to the ground a helmetless man. Once that man was down, I took his blade from his hand, taking a sword thrust to my right shoulder in the process. But my right shoulder healed as I parried the next thrust with my left hand, and I tossed my stolen gladius from left hand to right to stab my enemy in the heart with one short, quick thrust.
“My captors-turned-comrades were outnumbered even more so than I had been, and I charged up the riverbank to lend my martial skills to the lesser of two enemies. Several more parries of thrusts from unskilled swordsmen, several more jabs from my own blade, and the tide was turned into a wave which washed our enemies back into the surrounding darkness.
“The three survivors of the Frankish raiding party, standing alongside me atop the lip of the riverbank, first darted their eyes from myself to the thick trees of the forest and back again several times, then affixed those eyes solely on my person and each other, then looked away in a silent acceptance of my freedom as they scattered to stoop and rob the dead.
“The ride back to Frankish territory from the Sequanus took two nights and two days over countryside which had never seen a Roman road. I could have attempted an escape at any time, now that I rode a dead Frank’s traveling horse, but I felt compelled to ride all the way home with these new comrades of mine, if only out of a lack of resources for a journey back to my own home on the Venetian lagoon.
“The leader of the three was true to the word he gave across the campfire the night between those two days of riding, for I was introduced as an ally to the local baron who feasted us the night of the remaining three’s return. I attributed my sharp fighting skills to a quarter century of serving under Flavius Aetius against Huns and Burgundians, and stated that I had been on the way to claim my retirement land in the vicinity of Alençon when I had been waylaid in Paris by unknown assailants.
“The baron accepted that poppycock without question, only nodding and asking if I would be willing to train his men in the Roman arts of war. I looked about myself in that smoky hall along the Samara River, at the many fierce eyes looking back at me from beneath close-cropped heads of hair, and I nodded in response to the rhetorical question.
“The training began the next day, on a mist-shrouded field lying along that river. The men I had been given by the baron were mere farmers, natives of the land yanked from their fields and families by a warlord whose foreign caste had ruled them for less than a generation; they were now gathered amidst cow chips, staring at me sullenly.
“I accepted the challenge at full face, training those Gallo-Romans as the legionaries of old, drilling them and marching them and even knocking to the ground those few who continued to sulk. Their hearts began to be molded into something resembling steel, but their swords remained wooden, and at the end of a week’s time I approached the baron in his lodge to request more adequate weapons for my men.
“The baron and his lodgemates laughed when I made my request, and only after the mirth had run its full course did the baron deign to explain that peasants could not be entrusted with real weapons. I dared then to ask him why he wanted his peasants trained, and he amiably replied that his peasants could assist in defense when the time came.
“I then changed tack by replying that the baron’s peasants (I was wise enough to refrain from actually using the term ‘my men’) could be effective raiders across the Samara. This declaration prompted outright howls from the assembled barbarians, and I waited until the last wave had passed to add that they could be effective raiders with adequate weapons and supporting cavalry.
“The baron had laughed along with his men and wenches, but seemed intrigued once he gave my proposal a moment’s reflection. I seized the opening and elaborated, explaining that his equipped and trained infantry could take entire villages and even towns, and what remnants there were of the Roman defense forces would be checked by his horsemen. I started to elaborate further, describing how his peasant force, while effective, would not be large enough to attract the attention of Rome itself, but I fell silent in the face of the baron’s silence.
“The warlord allowed a few awkward moments to transpire, then turned to his nearest underling. ‘Pharamond,’ he muttered, with the bitter tiredness in his voice exclusive to old men who feel cheated of their real lives.
“Pharamond stepped forward with a ‘My Lord,’ and turned to me with a smirk which his master could not see.
“‘You will take Cartaphilus to Turnacum,’ the baron declared with a sudden strength. ‘You will take Cartaphilus to Turnacum under guard, with a request for him to be supplied with arms so that we may stamp out raiders who have been crossing the river.’
“Pharamond’s smile disappeared with the drop of his jaw, and he could only sputter, ‘We haven’t been raided.’
“‘And neither have our enemies been raided,’ the baron shot back. ‘You leave on the morrow.’”
“Indeed Pharamond, myself, several armed horsemen, and several empty wagons left the next morning for Turnacum, the capital of King Clodio and his Salian Franks, or ‘Franks of the Sea.’ This time I was not forced to ride hard, for the wagons were with us and Pharamond did not seem eager to reach the Turnacum armory which was our goal.
“‘You are aware that this is all part of a game,’ Pharamond observed to me out of the blue, as we rode the edge of a forest beneath a lead gray sky, sounding like he thought me aware of not a thing. I suspected what was about to be confirmed as the truth, but I allowed him to mistake my silence for stupidity, and he continued with, ‘Our lord believes he should have been king, and not Clodio.’
“I glanced behind us for eavesdroppers, and asked, ‘The two are brothers?’
“Pharamond did not answer my question, but continued on with, ‘Our lord is old, but not as old as King Clodio, who is rumored to be ailing.’ He urged on his horse (and thus mine) with a single nick of his primitive spur, and concluded with, ‘Be careful for both our sakes. If our lord is accused of treason, he will make sure it’s our necks and not his.’
“We arrived at Turnacum Nerviorum long after night had fallen (in the heart of the Salian Frank realm, night travel was indeed possible), and we encamped beneath the city’s walls before visiting the armory the next morning to request angons, swords, and shields for civic defense.
“Our request was heard that morning by the noble in charge of the smithy and its storage, but his loyalty to the king seemed to run deeper than his supposed old friendship with the said man’s brother. A messenger boy was sent scurrying in the direction of the villa which was now the royal residence, and he soon returned with several warriors trotting behind him.
“Pharamond and myself were given an instant audience with King Clodio, atop a hypocaust-heated mosaic floor depicting Atlas beneath our feet. The tribal chieftain, the only one in the room with long hair (for no women were present), looked at us sullenly from the moment we entered the room, and I found myself looking away to avoid giving him a challenging look.
“‘I understand you men were asking for weapons in great quantities this morning,’ the king growled, his voice gravelly with age but still full of power, unlike his brother’s.
“‘For defense, My Lord,’ Pharamond replied quickly, taking a step forward to distance himself from me. ‘The peasants are needed to defend against raiders across the Samara.’
“Clodio’s blue eyes bored into the both of us from beneath a mane of white hair. ‘I have been told of no raids from Roman territory.’ The growl was only deeper.
“I took two steps forward, one past Pharamond, and declared, ‘The best defense is a good offense, My Lord.’ The two guards behind the throne above Atlas’s head set their angons forward in a warning gesture, but their king only looked at me quizically. ‘I am a former Roman soldier,’ I told him in the Latin which I hoped he knew. ‘I have trained a few of your peasants in the Roman arts of war for defense, but I believe we can take the fight across the river.’ I pounded one fist in one palm with genuine emotion. ‘That land is ripe for plundering, but we need your permission and your cavalry.’
“I could feel Pharamond’s eyes boring into the back of my skull, but I sensed that I would be returning to the Samara under the protection of Clodio’s horsemen. ‘Why would a Roman wish to plunder his own country?’ the king asked me in surprisingly passable Latin.
“I looked at the floor, and replied, ‘Because I am a Roman; conquest is in my blood.’”
“And it was much Roman blood which was spilled as a result of my actions. Pharamond and I returned to the baron and his riverside hall with wagons full of the swords, spears, and shields I had requested. That man, whom I learned was the baron’s son (and thus, of course, the king’s nephew), traveled behind the wagons with his father’s men, and I traveled before the wagons with a new cavalry escort which was no doubt intended to ensure my loyalty up to and including the matter of spoils.
“And spoils we soon acquired in plenty, after another week of training of my foot soldiers, this time with real weapons in their hands and this time over the muted protests of the baron. By now the local harvesting was completed, and my men were turned from part-time militiamen into full-time raiders with an early morning crossing of the flowing border.
“The horsemen I had sent ahead an hour before (yes, my friend, I had insisted on overall command of these raiders, and the king had assented). The horsemen I had sent ahead, and they took care while raiding the nearest village, burning the grain stores, killing each and every male, and rape-killing all of the females, save for the handful of girls they allowed to ‘escape’ to the next village to spread the tallest of tales.
“The locals along the Samara, used to the phenomenon of mounted Frankish raiders crossing into their territory, sent their own band of horsemen in pursuit before midday. These proto-knights, housed in a riverside fort and still answering to the Emperor in Rome, were no doubt thrilled when they spotted my cavalry returning from the ravishing of a second village and racing for a ford across the river. The natives threw all caution to the wind and raced to intercept, not sensing that my horsemen had slowed for their pursuit and certainly not sensing my foot soldiers gathered beneath the lip of the nearest riverbank.
“My horsemen wheeled to their right to cut off all retreat, and myself and my infantry mounted the riverbank to deal the hammerblow with new angons and swords. Those Gallo-Romans were killed to the last man.
“Now that our entire force was mounted, the infantrymen awkwardly riding captured mounts, and now that the local defense force was annihilated, we set to the real ravaging of the local countryside before the Romans could send a force from Noviodunum. The wagons which had carried my weapons back from Turnacum forded the river and met us at the next (and largest) village we raided, to carry grain and women back to our side of the river. A fourth village was left a smoldering ruin as well, and then it was back over the Samara before nightfall.
“I could see the scope of my success in the eyes of the baron as he glowered at me from his end of the hall while I celebrated with my men by drinking each and every one under the long table. And I could see the scope of my success in the eyes of the two captured sisters I took to my bed that night, the terrors in their eyes mixed with the acceptance that I was the power to be pleased.
“And, finally, I could see my success in the eyes of the king after he ordered me back to Turnacum to report on my endeavor across the river. I knew that normally a man in my position would need to be wary, as a tribal chieftain would see me as a threat, but I also knew that these were not normal times. In fact, I saw in those eyes of his myself as a potential successor, for the king was both ill and childless. As if to both spare me from court intrigues and to prove my martial worth beyond a doubt, he sent me against a new enemy, or rather an old enemy on a new frontier; he sent me to make what work I could of the Ripuarian Franks.”
“The king directed me in late autumn against the so-called ‘River’ Franks (as opposed to the ‘Salian’ or ‘Salty’ Franks nearer the coast), and it seems that someone in court had a cruel sense of wit, for many of the roads leading east towards the Rhenus and the enemy, dirt tracks in the best of weather, were strings of mud and puddles.
“But, as I had learned to do over the centuries, I turned the most adverse of circumstances to my greatest advantage. By this time, my friend, Romans had a well-deserved reputation for effeteness, and my opponents based in their city of ‘Colonia’ along the Rhenus no doubt attributed my appointment as general to a political arrangement between the Franks and the Romans, and not to any martial skill on my part. I therefore used up the rest of the calendar year drilling peasant soldiers now freed from their harvest duties, building siegecraft, and generally conveying the impression to the Ripuarians in the town of Aquisgranum that I was waiting for the excuse of winter to avoid fighting.
“But it was when the winter winds blew harshest, in early January, that I made my move. Directly up a still-usable Roman road, under the protection of tight formations of soldiers bundled against the cold, lumbered the wagons full of parts for the onagers, battering rams, and trebuchets which appeared suddenly beneath the frosted walls of Aquisgranum one morning. Shouts of panic could be heard from atop those Roman-built stone-and-mortar defenses, and I knew that enemy reinforcements from Colonia would be quickly coming.
“It was those reinforcements which I was counting on. I rightly reckoned that a mounted messenger from Aquisgranum would reach Colonia before nightfall, that the Ripuarians would spend the night preparing a force to relieve the besieged city, and that same force would sally forth the next morning.
“And, per my orders, the commander of my horsemen arrived east of Aquisgranum the second afternoon of the siege, having ridden through a frozen Arduenna Silva to fall upon a surprised enemy in the heart of their own territory. The battle between the two mounted contingents was a draw, but, as my cavalry commander had placed himself and his men between the rival horsemen and the city they had intended to relieve, that draw resulted in a Ripuarian retreat, and the retreat resulted in a request for terms from the defenders of Aquis, as the Franks had already begun to call the town.
“My terms for the defenders were generous (I allowed them to abandon the town and retreat to Colonia unmolested), but our treatment of the civilians was anything but civilized. I organized a systematic pillaging of Aquis’s wealth, arranging for clothes, finer furniture, valuables, and other movable properties which were a vestige of the town’s wealthier Imperial days to be piled in the same wagons that had carried the siegecraft parts, and which would now carry that booty back to Turnacum.
“The treatment of the living was less organized, and therefore less kind. I took two girls for the bed in my villa which I had made my headquarters, and left the rest of the town’s females in the hands of men who had not seen a woman in months.