The old Camp of the Tenth Legion, near Aquincum, Magna Gothica
(the following section goes at the end of the chapter)
Alexandros lifted a sword from its bedding of raw wool and straw and turned it over in his hands. It was new, fresh, unstained by rust or blood. He tested the grip, feeling the slickness of the wire-wrapped hilt, and extended his arm, letting the blade hang in the air at right angles to his body. The sword was heavy, as it should be, but not too heavy for a man to wield in battle. The edge seemed good, too, though some work with a whetstone would be needed to finish it properly.
“This seems suitable. How are the rest?”
The swordsmith shrugged, kicking the side of the clapboard wooden crate the swords had come in. “Not bad work, for a job lot, soulless, banged out of some fabrica in Mediolanum.” The Goth’s voice simmered with professional distaste. Alexandros understood the man – he was a craftsman, used to building each weapon to order, for a specific owner. These swords, churned out of some slave-run factory in northern Italia, had no soul. They were empty. No good for winning glory, in his view.
“Check them carefully. We’ve gotten good service from Theodelinda’s agents so far, but I’d not trust them with my life.”
The smith nodded, his black eyes examining the blade that Alexandros handed him. The Macedonian lacked a strong network of artisans and craftsmen in Aquincum – the town was too small and exposed for that – but he had taken care to import some skilled men to check the equipment that came, in fits and starts, from the Empire. Gaius Julius was still working hard, in Rome, sending more gold, more men, more arms and armor, to Alexandros. Most days, it didn’t seem like much at all, but Alexandros had fought with less before.
Oh, father, he mused, what a glorious gift you left me. Each day, I treasure it more.
Alexandros had hated his father for his entire adult life, but now, with the abyss of centuries between them, he was beginning to feel something like fondness for the drunken old lecher. Each week spent trying to beat this army of castoffs, vagabonds and reckless younger sons into shape made him praise the experienced, veteran, superbly trained army that old Phillip had left him. These men were willing, but it took so long!
The Macedonian stomped out of the smithy, scowling, in a suddenly foul humor. He needed a drink, maybe more than one.
“How,” he muttered, “will I conquer the world with this rabble?”
Ermanerich was waiting, wrapped in a dirty gray cloak, sitting under the porch of the outbuilding. A chill had come on the air overnight, making the day gray and filled with fitful breezes. Everyone was on edge as a result. The Goth looked sick, sallow-faced and squinting.
“Hello, lad, what ails you this morning?”
“My father.” Ermanerich stood, wrapping the cloak around his shoulders like a blanket. Alexandros guessed the boy had not slept. “Has he no honor? His words cut at my heart! Everything that you have built, he tears down.”
Alexandros nodded amiably, starting to walk up the path of split logs that led to the main part of the camp. Here along the Danuvius it rained constantly. Mud plagued the whole camp, all the time, getting into everything, fouling the horses, making their lives miserable. Alexandros, following the Roman custom, had sent woodcutters out into the forest to bring back logs to pave the streets of the camp. It was only a partial answer, but it helped.
Ermanerich followed automatically, still bitter. “Half of your officers torn away! Most of our most experienced men taken… he cripples us.”
“Yes,” Alexandros suppressed a smile. The boys’ humor was poor – it wouldn’t do to tweak him at a time like this. “Just as he intended all along, and as I expected.”
“What? You knew all along?” An angry hand clutched at the Macedonian’s shoulder and he was spun around. Ermanerich was a very strong young man, when he chose to exert himself. Alexandros’ face darkened and he met the Goth’s anger with his own, sudden and hot.
“I did.” Alexandros struck aside the hand, stepping in close, his face grim in Ermanerich’s. “It was the only thing for a king to do. Now, quell your anger, or I will do it for you.”
“I will not take such words!” Ermanerich’s teeth were bared and he swung at the Macedonian, his fists bunched like sledges. “You dishonor us!”
Alexandros dodged one punch, then staggered back, rocked by the other. His foot slipped on the uneven planking and he went down hard on the walkway. Ermanerich, shouting, lunged forward, hands wide to grab the Macedonian. Alexandros rolled back and up, gaining a series of splinters in his thigh for the trouble. He woofed, taking another punch in the stomach, then hit back, sharply. Ermanerich, still swinging, took the blow right on the nose with a sharp crack! He staggered, then Alexandros, his face very cold and still, kicked him in the groin. The boy crumpled, gasping for breath. The Macedonian dragged him up, then kicked him into the street.
Ermanerich hit a big pool of stagnant water with a splash. Alexandros waded in, ignoring the mud on his kilt and tunic. The boy was sputtering, thrashing about with his arms.
“Get up.” Alexandros’ voice was still very cold, tremendous anger clear on his face. “Now.”
Alexandros dragged him up, one hand wrapped in the collar of the boys’ tunic, across the street and down the hill towards the river. The Goth was coated with mud from head to foot. A few soldiers, off duty, stared after the pair, but they – wisely – did not follow and went back inside, pretending they had seen nothing. The comes Alexandros always seemed an affable fellow, but there was tremendous violence hiding behind the smiling face. It was unwise to anger a tiger.
Ermanerich yelped, then hit the cold dark water of the Danuvius with a despairing cry. White foam splashed up around him and then he was gone, swallowed up. Alexandros watched for a moment, standing, arms akimbo, at the edge of the river. There was a place with a bit of gravelly beach where the grooms took the horses to wash. It didn’t seem too deep. Ermanerich resurfaced, his eyes wide in fear, arms and legs windmilling. With a great effort, he managed to claw his way back to the shore, hair tangled with water-vines.
Alexandros sat on a nearby log, looking out over the broad swift surface of the river. The Danuvius delineated the Roman frontier for over two thousand miles, from Augusta Vendelicorum in the northwest to Troesemis in the far southeast, right on the Sea of Darkness. For most of its length, it was a natural artery of trade and commerce, carrying uncounted barges, skiffs, lugs and trading boats. Here, where Magna Gothica ran up hard against the Draculis domain, it usually made an excellent defense. Today, it was mostly cold.
“A soldier that strikes his commander, generally speaking, is killed in full view of the troops.” Alexandros commented, the anger gone from his voice. “But you’re a rash youth, so I will let this pass, once.”
Ermanerich spit weeds out of his mouth, shivering. He hung his head.
“You’re going to go back to your father,” Alexandros was still looking out over the water. “With the best of the hetairoi and the hoplites and everyone else. I see his mind, I think. You will train another new army, using those men, and this time – without an interfering foreigner – he will let you have his household troops and those of the great clans. And I… I will go to the east, with the dregs and outcastes, to fight in the Emperor’s war.”
“That is abominable.” Ermanerich could barely speak, his teeth chattering with cold, fingers digging into the gravel.
Alexandros smiled, turning to look at him at last. The Macedonian’s eyes were very cold. “That is what a king would do. That is what I would do. Get up, prince of the Goths.”
Ermanerich stood, wincing and touching the tips of his fingers to his nose. It was broken.
“Listen to me. This has been very romantic, so far, filled with adventure and the taint of glory. This is not how war is, not how being a king is. Go back to your father, take the men that we have discussed… you will learn a great deal in his court. Pay attention! Watch how he manipulates the nobles and the clan chiefs – they will not like this new way of fighting, they will resist change. Some blood will be spilt, I think. Learn from him, for you will be king, soon.”
“What?” The boy’s face paled. Alexandros nodded, smirking at him in a knowing way.
“Your father is old, but he will not die in bed. You must be very careful. Theodelinda was a queen once, and ruled a strong nation. That is a sweet taste impossible to forget. If your father dies, then your uncle will be king, if you are not careful. And if Geofric does not watch his own cup, he will be under the cold ground soon, too. Then Theodelinda might be Queen.”
Ermanerich looked sick, but he remained standing and Alexandros saw that the boy was drawing strength from within himself. Good! He thought.
“Do you love me?” Alexandros watched the play of emotions on Ermanerich’s face. The question had been unexpected, but the boy was not startled by the concept.
“Yes, like a brother.” The words seemed to put resolve in the Gothic prince. “You have treated me as a man, shown me how to command, opened my eyes to a new way of war. We are friends, I think.”
“Perhaps.” Alexandros was familiar with ‘friendship’. By his memory, he owned exactly two true friends in the whole length of his life. This boy was not one of them. But he could be, whispered a stray thought, as Hephaiston was, once before. “When you return to your father, he will demand an accounting of the numbers of men trained, the weapons stored, the wagons, horses, equipment. Take him the mustering book that Krythos has prepared. If he presses you, stand by its numbers. Keep your captains tongues leashed.”
Ermanerich’s eyes narrowed and he looked, involuntarily, up the hill at the rows of barracks, the orderly sets of tents, the foundries, the workshops, the stables. “How many men have you reported to him?”
Alexandros grinned, his face lighting up like a small boy with a sweet. “Not so many as might have sweated on the practice fields, or marched before us, raising their helms in salute.”
“Half as many?” The Goth seemed outraged at such a simple ploy. “A third?”
Alexandros waggled his hand from side to side. “Perhaps half… a little less.”
The Goth rubbed his jaw, wincing at the bruise he found on his cheek.
“The day will come, Ermanerich, when you are reik of the Goths. On that day, all of these things will become perfectly clear to you and you will understand them, and me, and your father. I hope, on that day, that we will still be friends.”
The boy brightened at that and Alexandros clasped his forearm, grinning. The Macedonian may never have held many friends close, but he knew how to ape the manner. More than one man had accounted himself a ‘friend’. Alexandros did not laugh, but he was amused to think that every single one of them was dead, and he still lived.
“Come, lad, let’s get your army sorted out. You’ve a short march and I, a long one.”