The travellers from the future have barely gained a foothold in the Roman Empire, when their opponents already gather their forces and get in place for a counterattack. Troops are ready, campaigns are planned, and battles are prepared – the storm, which is about to rise, threatens to shake the Empire to its foundations. Everything the time-travellers wanted to change is in great danger. The uprising against everything Rheinberg and his followers have committed themselves to is imminent.
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Register of persons
Dirk van den Boom
“That is your proposal, Mr. Engineer?”
While it was quite unusual for Rheinberg to emphasize formality in his closest circle, the slightly disbelieving undertone, accompanied by an amused headshake immediately took the severity out of the salutation. Dahms grinned at Rheinberg. They sat in the narrow messroom on board the Saarbrücken. The cruiser was moored at the pier of the “German City” specially built for the ship, a settlement that had now developed into a veritable city district of Ravenna.
Dahms with his finger painted a circle in the small wine pool that clumsy Langenhagen had caused. The first officer of the Saarbrücken looked at the engineer somewhat irritated, but, like all of the others, noticed the twinkle in the man’s eyes. Was the proposal not meant to be serious? “Oh yes, Captain, Sir,” Dahms paid back with the same coin, and his grin broadened. “That’s the suggestion.”
“I wish Köhler was here,” Langenhagen muttered. The boatswain would have expressed his displeasure about the idea of the engineer with most well-chosen words.
“I want to repeat as I understand it,” Rheinberg said now, slowly, raising a pointing finger. “You have the intention of setting up a strategic collection of shit!”
Dahm’s face grew serious. “It’s exactly like that. Actually, I’m less concerned about the shit, if you allow me. I am concerned with saltpeter.”
“Which do you want to get from shit?”
Dahms raised his shoulders. “We haven’t found a natural saltpeter source yet. I’m sure there is such a thing in the realm – perhaps somewhere in Asia, at any rate there were some existing in our time. But we can’t wait so long, especially not in the current situation. We have to get away from the steam catapults and build proper cannons, and we need black powder. What we have gathered so far is sufficient for the experimental part of our work. But if we want to go into a real mass-production, this won’t be enough. We need saltpeter, and much of it. The best source is cow shit. Properly deposited, saltpeter crystals form on the underside of the dung. We need that. I don’t want the crap itself. What I want is an organization of people who are trained by us roaming all latifundia and courtyards, and with a suitable tool …”
“… rip through the shit,” Langenhagen completed the sentence. “Imperial shit.”
Dahms nodded. “Exactly. In the short term this is the best source for a substantial saltpeter reserve – at least until we have found a natural one. I hope this will soon be the case. But until then …”
Rheinberg looked for a moment doubtfully at Dahms, but then lowered his head and resigned to the inevitable. “All right,” he said softly. “I will confer your request to the Emperor. He’ll be irritated.”
“We’ve been doing a lot of things that have been irritating since our arrival,” Langenhagen said dryly.
“I can’t contradict you,” Rheinberg replied, reaching for his wine glass, without lifting it to his mouth. “Gratian is used to us. This will certainly not bother him too long, even if it is very peculiar.”
“I’m responsible for the peculiar,” Dahms reminded his superiors. “I stamp an industrial revolution out of the ground here. And this is based, at least in the field of weapon technology, on a nice heap of shit.”
Rheinberg frowned, smiling. “I’m sure I’ll chose a different wording for my conversation with Gratian.”
“It will be better,” Dahms confirmed. “But to return to the seriousness of the situation, I’m now in a dead end with the development of weapons. We are so far as to produce smaller pieces with drilled barrels and also successfully fired one as a test. But if all this is to be of military sense, it will be time to set up a proper artillery company. It has to be trained, very carefully. And I need a good measure of black powder. Before I have a reliable source for saltpeter, we are really stuck. I have now advanced to the refinement of the steam catapults, but we must clarify this question soon.” Dahms leaned back. “I expect large saltpeter deposits in the Nile mud. I also know that there have been sources in Hungary in our time. However, we still need time to develop the appropriate course of action. We should certainly involve Gratian. But for the immediate needs, the solution proposed by me is certainly the best and fastest.”
“As I said, I’ll bring it to the Emperor,” Rheinberg said. “He arrived in Ravenna the previous day, although only for a short visit. Since he is here, he is easier to reach. I’ll meet him at court tomorrow, and then I will discuss it before he leaves for Trier again.”
Rheinberg looked for a moment out of a porthole. The Saarbrücken was not alone in this newly established navy facility – even if the latter was at present not much more than a long pier and the dry dock still under construction. Visible in the waters was the Valentinian, the first steam-war ship of the Roman fleet, recently returned from northern Egypt, without Köhler and Neumann on board, who were both painfully missed by Rheinberg.
But with an unexpected guest.
It was an officer, a young man, the closest follower of the traitorous former First Officer von Klasewitz, about whom they hadn’t heard anything since that disastrous night. Until now.
Rheinberg took a deep breath. His injury was still noticeable, a pain that had accompanied him since the failed assassination attempt on his life in the summer palace of the Emperor near Saravica. He wondered how he had managed to recover so quickly. It must have been a combination of a good bodily constitution, a competent doctor, and the unconditional will to be cured. Although the wound had now healed completely, he felt its existence; sometimes surprising, but sometimes when he expected it. The pain also reminded him that his enemies were everywhere and were not afraid of anything. Up until then, the failed assassins had not been linked to a specific source. The men had all died on the scene and hadn’t carried any traitorous hints.
Ever since the incident, Rheinberg suddenly would awake at night, his hands clenched around the pistol, which he always carried with him. Small movements, sudden noises, all that was enough to tear him from sleep. He didn’t want to raise the issue with anyone, but the mental wound that the assassination attempt had torn was obviously deeper and more lasting than the physical one.
Rheinberg had to deal with a lot of anxiety lately.
He closed his eyes. Where had he begun to digress? Ah, yes, von Klasewitz and his supporter, the young ensign …
“What do we do with Tennberg?” Langenhagen asked, as if he had guessed the Captain’s thoughts.
Dahms made a contemptuous grunt. Rheinberg knew what the engineer had in mind as to the fate of Tennberg. It had something to do with a fixed rope dangling from high. “We will proceed with caution,” Rheinberg replied. “I’ve made up my mind to conduct the interrogation myself, now that he has been knocked around for a while by his comrades. I’ll see him this afternoon.”
“I want to be there,” Dahms growled. “And if he doesn’t bend, I’ll beat his soul out of his body.”
Rheinberg smiled and shook his head at the same time. “No beating, at least not yet.” Before the engineer could reply, Rheinberg raised his hand and signaled him to keep quiet. “I once made a mistake with another ensign. I haven’t properly understood what it means for some of us to enter this new world. I’m very sorry now.”
Dahms wasn’t entirely convinced. His regret for Thomas Volkert seemed to be within narrow limits.
“We cannot compare Volkert’s case with that of Tennberg,” Langenhagen said.
“Both are deserters,” Dahms murmured.
“Both are deserters,” the First Officer confirmed. “But Volkert we have driven more or less toward it, and he is a young fellow who acted out of love. Tennberg was not compelled to do so, and he became a deserter because he was a failed mutineer. And that we have forked him up under certain circumstances in Egypt at least shows to me that he continued his betrayal without any remorse.”
Rheinberg smiled. He was delighted that his new deputy had the degree of human compassion that he himself had lacked in the past.
Dahms growled again but didn’t contradict. Rheinberg knew that the engineer missed Volkert and that he was basically willing to forgive him. But far and wide there was no trace of the ensign, and it was to suspect that he went underground somewhere in the Empire. And, last but not least, there were political reasons that didn’t allow an all too hasty amnesty.
“I’ll handle Tennberg carefully,” Rheinberg said. “He should get his chance.”
“He deserves nothing,” Dahms replied emphatically. “Volkert, yes, all right. But Tennberg? No way!”
“I won’t accept him back into the crew,” Rheinberg conceded. “But I’ll give him the prospect of an honorable exile. If I give him no perspective, the success of von Klasewitz is his only chance of a normal life, and he will not voluntarily pull out of the conspiracy.”
“Oh no. Let me spend a few hours with him alone. Or let our Roman friends do the ‘talking.’ I have heard that they are not too squeamish.”
This was indeed correct, as Rheinberg knew. Torture was a common and hardly questioned interrogation method. But the young Captain didn’t think anything of it. For him, such an approach was indisputable.
This attitude must have reflected in his facial expression, for Dahms let it rest.
Again his gaze wandered out to the Valentinian. Two other ships of the same type were already under construction, and Dahms was busy day and night building the two bronze steam engines needed for the new crafts. Rheinberg should be optimistic and proud. They had reached a remarkably great amount in a very short time. But since Tennberg had reappeared, something nagged at him, a dark premonition.
He finally rose and looked at his comrades.
“See you tomorrow evening,” he said. “Then we’ll know more about Tennberg’s intentions and the chances of collecting shit from the whole Empire.”
Dahms grinned. “I only need the saltpeter crystals. Raise the shit, scrap off crystals, leave the shit behind.”
Rheinberg raised his hands.
“Spare me the details, Mr. Engineer!”
Tribune Sedacius sat in front of the crackling camp fire. Everyone was grateful for the dancing flames, as it had cooled down in the evening. Erminius, the leader of the Quadians, squatted close to the Roman officer and was silent. The mood between Rome and the Quadians was not good. Only a few years earlier, Rome, largely unprovoked, had killed the king of the neighboring tribe and thus created a military conflict finally won by the Empire. Erminius, the successor of the murdered king, knew that his people were full of a deep and truly justified hatred against the traitors. But he also knew that there was a much greater danger approaching from the East – and that this threat had come very close, even closer than the Romans had assumed.
Thomas Volkert, although no one knew him under this name, rested at the fire as well. Sedacius had insisted, though Volkert’s rank was little more than that of a simple legionary. But the young man’s watchful intelligence had not escaped the Tribune’s attention, nor the story that had led to the sudden promotion of the soldier, who had once been involuntarily pressed into the service. At that time, he had led a column of green recruits in a surprise attack by the Sarmatians to an unexpected victory, after the actual officers had fallen. Volkert didn’t think of it as a feat. His friend Simodes had died in that battle. And it was hard to make friends here.
Erminius was silent because he had talked for a long time. In every detail, he had listed the previous encounters of his people with the Huns. Their attacks, quick, from the small, fast-paced horses, who had little work with the Quadians. Their courage, their unreservedness, their determination, the abilities of their leaders, who knew exactly how and where the tactical advantages of a mobile cavalry army could be put to proper use. The fact that the Quadians still existed depended on the fact that the main body of the Huns was relatively far away, and so far only smaller rutting group had been involved in fighting – as well as those groups of apostate Huns who refused to be subservient to the current leaders of their people and had sought their luck on their own.
But still. When the Quadians had succeeded in making some prisoners, it was clear that something was wrong, at least for Thomas Volkert, who knew a version of the story in which the great mass of the Huns appeared close to the Roman borders some decades later. This led to the Battle of the Catalaunian Fields and the legend of Flavius Aetius, the last great Roman general, who had been able to turn fate away from the possible ruin of Rome, only to be subsequently murdered by his own emperor.
Erminius had credibly told them that the main force of the Huns was now moving steadily toward the West and would be reaching the borders of the Empire much earlier than had been thought. It was highly probable that in a few years the Empire would suffer serious attacks. The Quadians didn’t have a proper idea of the extent of Eastern Europe, and Volkert felt that the speed with which the Huns knew how to travel was still underestimated, despite all their experiences.
The young German felt hot and cold listening to the descriptions.
Rheinberg’s elaborate plan to prevent the attack of the Huns against Rome by a counterattack threatened to collapse like a house of cards. If what the King gave up in bitter open-mindedness corresponded to the truth, the great exploratory mission, to which Volkert belonged, was only of limited use. The advance warning had rapidly diminished. The enemy was nearer than everyone thought and instead of continuing into the depths of the East, it was necessary to put the Empire in a state of readiness.
Volkert had to smile involuntarily at the thought. He hid the potential cause for misunderstanding behind a wooden mug of beer from which he had already drunken too much.
The Empire has been in that state for decades. But that wouldn’t be sufficient, as history had proved. But perhaps the Germans could make the difference, the difference between the tragic overthrow of Western Rome and its survival as a state. In Volkert, everything was urging Sedacius to send a message back to the authorities as soon as possible. But he was only a decurion. So he remained silent, waiting for his opportunity.
The Tribune said nothing. He, too, held a wooden beaker with beer in his hand, turned it slowly between his fingers, and looked at the reflection of the crackling fire in the murky liquid. He had proved himself as a good diplomat, and he drank the beer, although everyone knew he preferred wine. But insulting Erminius and questioning his hospitality, even to a certain extent, didn’t even occur to the Tribune.
It was an ability for which Volkert was quite grateful. The Quadians were in their heartland, deep in their territory, and the Roman column was very vulnerable, despite the presence of German infantry.
Volkert always had to shake off the feeling of being watched from the darkness. He felt uncomfortable since they had entered the great camp of Erminius, but he didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary, despite all his attention. Nor were the Quadians of a threatening demeanor, against which his intuitive mistrust could have been directed. They were reserved, defiant, grumpy, but just because of this they were honest, and the motivation for their willingness to cooperate was credible.
There was something different.
Volkert hid his face again in the cup. After all, the drink was quite enjoyable.
“So what are you Romans doing?” the King finally asked.
Sedacius hesitated visibly. He was only a tribune, and could scarcely anticipate the Emperor’s decisions. Nevertheless, he had to find an answer, because the good will of Erminius needed an adequate reaction if one didn’t want to recall the horrors of the past. The predecessor of Erminius had paid his trust with his life. Sedacius surely cursed those responsible. Volkert was certain that the Tribune wouldn’t repeat that same mistake.
“I can’t say what my lord will decide. Nevertheless, we were sent out to explore the danger posed by the Huns and to find out their exact distribution. Your help is very important to us. Rome will fight against the onslaught of the enemy as soon as possible.”
“What about us?” Erminius replied. Volkert knew at once what the Quadian wanted. Rome might be arming itself – and where in this game was place for his own people?
“I’m sure there is a solution. Perhaps the status of foederatii and a joint defense here at the border? I doubt less about the possibility of such an offer from our side than your willingness to accept it.”
“As if we had a great choice, Tribune.”
“Be assured of our good will.”
“This time for real?”
Sedacius raised his arms. “I can only say what I think and feel. I am a small tribune.”
Erminius nodded and sank for a few moments back into a pensive silence. Then he nodded a second time, more violently, and took the floor. “Prove your good will, Tribune, and find a way to learn more about our common enemies.”
Erminius gesticulated into the darkness. “Not far from here, no more than 50 Roman miles, there is a larger host of the enemy. We’ve been watching it for a while. It seems like they’re waiting for reinforcements. We don’t want to find out what happens when those arrive.”
“Not more than 50 miles?”
“Toward the sunrise.”
Erminius pursed his lips. “Two-thousand, rather 2,500. All on horseback.”
“I have scarcely a thousand men at my disposal,” the Tribune said.
“I offer 4,000 or 5,000 of my men, all that remains after the Empire was finished with us.” The bitterness in the King’s voice was unmistakable.
Sedacius didn’t pretend as if he didn’t notice it, and nodded expressively.
Volkert observed the Tribune carefully. He learned.
“So 6,000 men, if all comes together,” Sedacius said. It was left unspoken that the Roman soldiers had a very special reinforcement, which could be quite beneficial to the success of any attack.
“The chief of the Huns is a man named Octar. It is said that he is very close to the current leader, one of his closest advisors and commanders. Even if we can’t get hold of him, a few prisoners could help us.” Erminius had been waiting with this piece of information until the end.
Volkert realized that Sedacius was more and more inclined to seriously consider the proposal of his counterpart. “How did you learn name and position of that fellow Octar?” Volkert slipped.
Sedacius turned aside, giving the Decurion a half-blaming, half-appreciative look.
Erminius did not seem to mind the fact that someone else than the Tribune had asked the question. They all sat by the same fire. “Our friend spoke of it,” he said lightly, pointing to the mutilated head of the Hun, now lying decoratively on a wooden plank behind him, the flames reflecting on his empty face.
“I’d like to talk to your military leaders, your clan-chiefs,” Sedacius said.
“No problem. So you are interested, Tribune? Such an attack must take place soon. Who knows when the reinforcement appears? Then it could be too late even for our joint effort.”
The Tribune narrowed his eyes. Volkert sensed what was going on in his head. And when he made his demand, the young German knew that he had anticipated correctly.
Sedacius wanted to know how desperate Erminius really was. “I am commanding the attack,” the Tribune said.
Volkert watched the King closely. There was a resistance felt by the man, which was easy to discern. Pride as well, despair, but also fear and insecurity … and then, even before he opened his mouth, Volkert saw that Erminius had made a decision.
“I myself have other tasks to fulfill,” the leader of Quadians answered slowly. “My older son will take command of our warriors. He is well-acquainted with Roman customs; he served five years in the border troops until …”
“Until we betrayed you and murdered your King,” Sedacius completed in a quiet voice. “Then your son left the service and fought against our troops.”
Erminius smiled at the Roman. “You’re taking command. Luvico, my son, will not be enthusiastic about it, but he will understand your orders.” The King waved toward the darkness. “Bring Luvico and the scouts.” He looked at Sedacius searchingly. “We’ll begin at once?”
The Tribune lifted his cup. “Not if you have anything else to discuss.”
Adulis, according to Chief Köhler, was worth a trip. Although their latest experiences had been a bit uncomfortable, the long voyage had proved to be largely uneventful. Köhler wasn’t sad about it. Alexandria had shown them very urgently what powers were secretly directed against them. Still, no one knew how well their opponents were actually organized – or who actually belonged to them exactly. The fact that von Klasewitz, the apostate, had become a bitter enemy after his failed mutiny, wasn’t one of the great surprises. But the extent to which the resistance to the influence of the time-travelers was actually rooted in the imperial hierarchy was ultimately guesswork.
Here, outside the immediate Roman area of control, the situation was somewhat different – possibly simpler, but perhaps even more complicated. Adulis was the economic center of the Empire of Aksum, the predecessor of what Köhler had known from his time as the Empire of Ethiopia, to which the German Reich maintained friendly diplomatic relations. In addition to the capital Aksum itself, Adulis was the second major urban center of the North African empire, which, if Köhler was right in remembering the historical lessons of Rheinberg, was close to reach its zenith. Its special position as a Christian empire of its own kind wasn’t of importance so far. At that time, Roman North Africa was largely christianized as well. Islam as a great, competing world religion did not exist yet.
The port of Adulis was, of course, by no means as great as that of Alexandria. But the coastal sailor, which they had ascended in Alexandria, had to look for his jetty with an effort. From here, almost the entire trade of Aksum, in and out, was settled. The long quay walls were hardly recognizable because of the numerous ships. There was lively activity in the harbor basin and the noise of a heavily frequented transshipment area was already clearly perceptible during their approach. Their captain, a gray-haired sailor with many years of experience, was well-informed about the navigational hazards of their trip, so that Köhler was content to leave the nautical details entirely to him.
“Impressive, is it not?” Behrens and Africanus looked up, as the infantryman came nearer. “There is a whole new world to discover. What does it look like in the east? Or in the south? At this time, we are not making any real sense of our world.”
“There is still much to explore,” Köhler agreed. “And we’re obviously just right in the middle. Africanus, what does our next step look like?”
The Trierarch held a parchment roll in his hands. “This is the letter written for us by the Prefect of Egypt. We shall report to Josephus Diderius Latius. He is something like the resident ambassador of Rome to Adulis. His main task is trade rather than politics, but he knows his way around and will be able to establish the connection with the Aksumite government for us. He can also help us find the quickest way to Aksum.”
“Where does Latius reside?”
“Our Captain says he knows it, and we will be led there by one of his men. The ambassador is supposed to occupy a town-house near the port.”
“Our own accommodation?”
“I hope Latius will accommodate us. Otherwise, the Captain will be able to provide us with lodging that is not too dangerous.”
“We’ll manage, I’m sure.”
Africanus looked a little astonished at Köhler but didn’t reply. The Trierarch felt that the Germans had prepared themselves with a good mood, and above all, Köhler seemed to be so much at ease that nothing could make him nervous. The Roman officer even suspected that the Germans, in any case, saw this as an exciting adventure, which they wanted to enjoy to the fullest. Probably a better way to deal with fate than to think day by day of lost family members or friends who had vanished in the stream of time forever. Since, however, with all his enthusiasm Köhler didn’t lack the necessary precaution and care, Africanus couldn’t find any evil in this attitude. In fact, he himself was very anxious about Aksum, for this too was his first visit to this kingdom. So far, despite all his experience at sea, he had been staying only on the Mare Nostrum. Therefore, he entered new territory, and that in the truest sense of the word.
It took another hour for the coastal sailor to be moored properly. The Captain kept his promise and sent one of his men to show them the way. In addition, he promised to have the goods the expedition brought along well-guarded. His ship would remain here for four days; until then, the expedition had to find another safe place for their valuables.
They had spent a lot of gold in Clysma to buy valuable Roman products, which they could transport easily as well. Among these were, first and foremost, fine fabrics, but also exquisite wines as well as some of the artistic craftsmanship known to be in high demand among the elite of rich cities, eager to place anything exotic in their villas and mansions. All in all, the goods were less intended to cover their livelihood in Aksum – the Roman coin was gladly exchanged against the local currency or could even be used directly – but rather to present suitable gifts to the king in Aksum, and probably for important people in his court.
After all, they wanted something from him.
Köhler, Behrens and Africanus formed the delegation, which, under the leadership of a bullish sailor, finally entered the quay and dived into the streets of Adulis. The weather was hot, and the sun was burning from an almost completely cloudless sky. The swirling crowd, the noise, and the rapid movements of their guide, who obviously knew perfectly how to navigate in the city, quickly generated sweat not only on their foreheads, but the light cloths with which they were adorned were completely drenched as well.
Although the estate of the Roman envoy was “near the port,” they were on the road for a good half an hour. The early afternoon had begun, and as the three men, in their quest to visit Latius as soon as possible, had departed without taking a snack, they felt a throbbing hunger as well as thirst. But they were full of confidence to be able to enjoy the hospitality of the envoy, and the prospect of chilled wine and a meal bolstered the agility of their progress.
Soon they had entered a side street. Here, too, the expedition moved quickly and the tall, white walls gave a relaxing shade. They had arrived in a quarter of the city where obviously more prosperous citizens lived. In some of the courtyards the travelers saw a few of the gigantic stelae, like the Aksumites used to erect them, marked with inscriptions. It seemed that they shared the same passion for impressive monuments as the Romans did. Like the Germans as well, Köhler thought to himself. Some things just lasted forever.
Then their guide stopped so abruptly that the three men almost bumped into him. They were standing in front of a white wall. A big wooden door stood open. In one of the two door wings, a sturdy “SPQR” was artfully carved into the wood. That this was the house of Latius there could be no doubt.
“The door is open. This isn’t normal, is it?” Africanus said. He looked at her guide. “Is this customary?”
The sailor shrugged, pointed to the door.
“I should only bring you here,” the guide said. “Everything else is none of my business. I have done my duty.” He raised his hand to greet them, turned away without comment, and disappeared, relieved of his obligation. Whatever was going on here, he obviously didn’t want to have anything to do with it.
Africanus, Köhler and Behrens looked at each other. There was mistrust in her eyes.
The time-travelers drew the pistols they carried with them. They were not recognizable as a weapon for the random observer, so they wouldn’t immediately be considered as a threat, should the open door only prove to be irrelevant.
Köhler nodded to Behrens. That was his area of expertise.
The Sergeant touched the door carefully with his toe. It swung wider, without any squeaking from the hinges, opening to a view of a courtyard in Roman style. Latius had built a small piece of home in Adulis.
Behrens stepped forward, his scrutinizing look wandering vigilantly. Nothing moved. Africanus and Köhler followed him. A gentle breeze blew from the coast to the yard and gave them some needed cooling.
Slowly, observant, they pushed forward, entered the pillared main building with the painted walls and the mosaic floors, artistic architecture that bore witness to wealth and taste.
No servant stood up to them and asked for their request. The house was silent. The only sounds came from the street.
They entered the atrium, and there they saw Latius, as he smiled amiably at them. A handsome man, the toga swung around the body like a senator, with a large, bulging nose, wrinkles around his eyes, and short, Roman-style hair. He had raised his hand to the salute, the symbolic gesture best known to any Roman, greeting as the master of the house.
A life-size statue of himself had been placed in the atrium, carefully marked with name and rank, a modesty that helped them to unambiguously identify the beheaded corpse that lay directly in front of the statue in its blood. The head had rolled a little further, had been coming to rest under a bed-chair, the facial expression rather unfriendly, showing traces of the agony and horror Latius must have felt at the moment of his death.
Africanus looked at the corpse with a professional look.
“A clean, well-executed blow. This man here wasn’t a warrior. He was at the mercy of his opponent.”
“Where are the servants?” Köhler asked. “Latius must have had slaves.”
Africanus looked around, paused for a moment, lowered his gaze in attention. “I hear something.”
In fact, footsteps approached, hurriedly. Several men.
Then a half-dozen Aksumite soldiers, armed with shield and spear, plunged into the atrium, led by two men, who could be identified as slaves. The two seemed to be quite excited.
For a moment, both groups glared at each other.
Then everyone’s eyes fell upon the beheaded body of the Roman envoy.
One of the slaves, trembling, lifted his right arm, his mouth desperately trying to form the words that Köhler already anticipated. When the finger pointed toward the three visitors, the trembling man said something in a foreign language, but there could be no doubt about the content of the message.
The soldiers lifted their spears. They’d found the culprits.
Petronius entered the empty church and paused for a moment. An uninvolved observer might have thought the priest just remained silent, but instead the man looked around imperceptibly. The big room was empty, oil lamps flickered on the walls. It was already evening in Ravenna, and the high, narrow wall windows didn’t allow a lot of light inside. Finally, the man’s gaze fixed itself on the collapsed figure, who, apparently inoblivious of anyone, crouched before the altar. Petronius knew that this person was waiting for him, but he had been informed by a messenger only that morning of the imminent arrival of this important personality.
He hurried forward. He didn’t even think about why he had been requested to come and not his master, the bishop. He knew who was calling for him, and it was only logical that the old and unreliable bishop was not involved in this conversation.
When he had reached the figure, the person rose silently and slammed back the hood of his garment. Petronius was not astonished when he recognized the man’s face at once; indeed, a feeling of joyful expectation filled him.
He lowered his head respectfully. It was always a good thing to show Ambrosius, the Bishop of Milan, the necessary reverence. After all, a good relationship could only help him to become Bishop of Ravenna, as soon as the elderly man currently occupying that position has finally withered away.
“My brother,” the Bishop said softly, and a gentle smile greeted Petronius. He bowed his head and let himself be blessed. Then he crouched next to Ambrosius and looked at the flickering tallow candle, which stood before them. He didn’t say anything. The Bishop had called him, and he’d speak at the appropriate time.
“How is Liberius?” the visitor finally asked for his brother from Ravenna. Petronius listened carefully. The question was not totally of a harmless nature.
“My master is doing well, as much as he can expect in his old age,” he replied. “I talked to him this morning and held a prayer. He looked tired.”
“Time makes you tired,” Ambrosius replied, his crooked eyes facing the priest again. “And for an old man like Liberius, all of this is certainly very hard to grasp.”
“He carries his burden bravely.”
“You’re helping to carry it. Without your help, Liberius couldn’t fulfill his duties, everyone says that.”
“I serve where God has commanded me to. If I serve well, I’m pleased.”
“You’re doing very well,” Ambrosius said. “In fact, I suspect that your services will one day enable you to claim the highest office in Ravenna.”
“I don’t expect so,” Petronius replied modestly. Both men knew it was a lie, and both of them didn’t bother.
“I have friends in Ravenna,” Ambrosius said.
“You have friends everywhere,” the priest flattered.
“Not everywhere. At the moment I am less popular at the imperial court.”
“A very regrettable circumstance.”
“I couldn’t phrase it more adequately.”
“It is necessary to change this.”
“That’s why we meet.”
For a moment, Ambrosius said nothing, looking only at the sluggishly flickering candlelight. “Say, Petronius, what have we learned from the failed attempt to attack the metal ship of the demon worshipers?”
Petronius had a spontaneous answer on his tongue, feeling somewhat out of balance by the sudden question, which still put a finger on the painful wound of his recent failure. But then he swallowed the answer and thought about it more. The Bishop wouldn’t ask him in order to blame him. The meaning behind this question went further. It was necessary to answer it the right way.
“We mustn’t underestimate them,” Petronius began cautiously.
Ambrosius bowed his head. He didn’t comment.
“Violence against them is meaningful only if we have created a situation in which they are clearly in an inferior position,” Petronius warmed to the topic. His next sentences came quicker, more eagerly, without waiting for a possible reaction from his opposite. “They must be far from their weapons, or the advantages of their weapons can’t be put to use properly. A clear superiority of our numbers and greater determination would also help.”
Ambrosius allowed the hint of a smile. “You think like a soldier, my brother.” Before the latter could reply, the Bishop raised his hand. “That was no criticism. We live in times when you, as a man of the church, must think like a soldier. We are disciples of Jesus, Petronius. We are leading a great crusade, and the enemies are many. These are not only the time-wanderers themselves, but also those who support or at least tolerate them.”
Petronius whispered, “But this also includes the Emperor …”
“Yes, the Emperor. What do you learn from that conclusion, my friend?”
Petronius thought for a moment. Although the Bishop had said that nothing was wrong with his argumentation, he suspected that something more was expected. “We should find ways other than direct confrontation. We must first find allies, influence moods, spread rumors. We must tear or at least shake the foundation on which the strangers are standing. They must be on their own once we attack again. No one should help them. And if they are beaten, no one shall think of revenge or retribution.”
Petronius looked into the Bishop’s eye and recognized respect and affirmation. He felt the man’s hand on his shoulder, the gentle pressure of his fingers. He saw his smile.
“Petronius, you will get far.”
“I serve the Lord and his church.”
“Very far, my brother, very far. But before we talk about gratification and recognition, we have to talk about what you have just made clear. Let’s talk about this village, the settlement with all the demonic things that are built there. Let us talk about the people who work there and who are helplessly exposed to the evil influence of the demon worshipers. Let us talk about what is to be done to free them from the claws of their spell, cleanse their souls and lead them to the light – and let us speculate about what the population of beautiful Ravenna can do to help us with our plans.”
Petronius’ eyes were shining. Whatever the Bishop of Milan thought, it was entirely according to the taste of the priest. “I’m anxious to hear your suggestions,” he replied eagerly.
Then they put their heads together.
Whoever happened to enter the chapel by chance, would see two priests who were quietly and passionately praying, a constant, eternal litany in honor of the Lord.
And the plan slowly took shape.
Markus Tennberg was tortured.
No one was poking him with glowing irons. The Ensign in the Imperial German navy, even if he didn’t believe that he would continue to occupy this position any longer, was fully aware of the fact that the Roman state had the most capable and experienced torturers in his service and little scruple to employ their talents against anyone from whom one hoped for information. At the present time, however, the young man wasn’t exposed to such physical torture. This didn’t mean that this couldn’t change, and this thought made him as uncomfortable as any kind of real torture he might be subjected to.
Tennberg sat on the straw bag, which served him as a bed. He looked out of the narrow hole, barely a brick’s size, in the wall, through which daylight penetrated his dungeon cell. There wasn’t much to see. He stared directly at an opposite wall. The cold winter air reached his nose, mixed with the warmth of the fire, which pushed through the grilles from the other side. The cell had no door but a wall of iron bars, as did the six other cells of the small prison. All the metal walls were aligned to a wide corridor, which ended on a heavy wooden door. In the middle of the corridor, a fire burned in a half-open fireplace, and the three legionaries who guarded the prisoners were sitting in front of it.
Tennberg was currently the only inmate. The Romans largely ignored him, talking quietly, chewing on something, playing a game. Scarcely ever a glance struck him. Twice a day, morning and night, a meal was given to him, nothing special, but enough to keep him properly fed. He received water all day. Nobody wanted him to go hungry or thirsty.
This wasn’t the torture either.
The real torture consisted of the visits of his shipmates.
No, he always corrected himself – his former shipmates. In most cases, they were men of the infantry, not even his old navy friends. Hard men, and in their faces a lot of determination as much as contempt. It was this contempt that made him feel sleepless at night. The coldness in the eyes, without compassion. Each of these men would kill him, without hesitation, if the order would be given. Tennberg knew why the interrogations were not carried out by the men of the Saarbrücken. Tennberg had followed von Klasewitz because he had been promised a rapid career in the Roman Empire. But he had never been the angry grinder and arrogant asshole like the nobleman, not more than a little ensign who had wanted to take an abbreviated climb on the way up. This abbreviation had, after a few detours, brought him directly into a dungeon cell in the small settlement close to Ravenna, which had been created around the cruiser, and where Dahms was concerned with initiating an industrial revolution.
Tennberg tried to guess what would happen to him. He had retained his knowledge on the whereabouts of von Klasewitz and his plans to that day, awaiting to be beaten or worse.
No one had struck him. Every day the same questions were asked. Where is the nobleman? Who has he allied with? Who helps him? What is he doing? What kind of knowledge does he give his friends? What resources are available to him? What was he doing in Alexandria?
No word had passed his lips. He had reaped glances of contempt and disgust, but no one had raised his hand against him. They gave him food and a warm bedroom. Every three days, hot water was brought, and he had to wash his whole body. He was supposed to live and to do well – according to the circumstances. Everyone waited for Rheinberg’s return in order to bring affairs to an end.
What would Rheinberg’s order be? Tennberg didn’t remember him as a particularly cruel officer. But he must have changed now that he was among the leaders of the Empire. Politics, as Tennberg has already learned despite his young age, was often more important than individual preferences and desires. “Reason of state” was the overriding concern. And sometimes people like him fell victim to it.
And there were good reasons why he could become one of these victims.
Tennberg felt a shiver run through his body. He didn’t tremble because of the cold air.
He turned around as someone opened the door. It was a familiar face, expressionless, with cold eyes. The high grown man wore the uniform of the infantry, as all his conversation partners so far. His badges identified him as a lieutenant, perhaps a platoon leader. Tennberg couldn’t remember his name. The man had probably never mentioned it.
It was like a ritual. Tennberg was to sit on the only piece of furniture in his cell, a coarse-tiled stool. Then two men entered, the lieutenant and an infantryman with a raised weapon whose barrel was directed directly at Tennberg’s skull. The lieutenant went behind the prisoner and tied his hands together with a shackle. When Tennberg was secured, the infantryman lowered the weapon and stood watchful in a corner.
The lieutenant began his encirclement.
He walked around the sitting Tennberg. No word came over his lips. He made his rounds. Tennberg had begun to count them. The interrogation usually didn’t begin until the lieutenant had finished his fourth round. He was predictable, and so the menacing posture of this ritual faded. It got boring.
Tennberg would be careful not to show that. He made sure that he seemed intimidated, even frightened. His boredom was his treasure, his tiny advantage, and he clung to it fervently.
The cold voice intersected his thoughts. Tennberg twitched involuntarily. He had to accept that his nerves were not in good condition.
“What does your future look like?”
Tennberg was confused for a moment. Was this a new question? No one had ever wanted to talk to him about this topic. He also didn’t believe that this question was asked out of genuine concern. “I do not know,” the prisoner replied truthfully.
“No wishes, ideas?”
“They’re no longer important.”
“I am trapped, a mutineer, and a deserter. My punishment is inevitable.”
“So you know your future?”
“As far as the end of this process is concerned, yes. Execution awaits me.”
“Aaah, yes. Execution. A simple and obvious solution.”
Tennberg said nothing.
The lieutenant made a round and spoke. “It’s not that easy, Ensign. We are no longer in our time and our country. Things have changed.”
“I was told that the laws of the German Reich continue to be valid. And even the laws of Rome clearly state what has to be done with mutineers. I do not see what has changed.”
“You’ve been dealing intensively with these things, have you?”
“Then why did you mutiny?”
“It seemed to me to be the right thing, and a superior officer had strengthened me in this view.”
Tennberg had expected a burst of hatred comments for his reply, but nothing of the sort happened. The Lieutenant seemed rather thoughtful. “Yet something has changed, Tennberg. We are fighting for our survival. We are by no means as superior to the Romans, as we would have liked. We must convince and impress them.”
Tennberg said nothing. He didn’t even feel that these observations were addressed to him.
“I see your future somewhat different from you,” the Lieutenant finally said. He went to squat before Tennberg, looked into his face. “You count on your death, Ensign?”
The prisoner nodded.
“What if I offer you your life?”
Tennberg made a comprehensive hand movement. “And this is my life? It would be like a death, but much slower and more agonizing.”
The lieutenant looked at him searchingly. “Many people in your situation would seize the opportunity and hope for future pardon.”
Tennberg shook his head. “Not me.”
“You underestimate Captain Rheinberg.”
“The offer could be better than you’d expect.”
“Your life and more.”
“Exile. The Empire is great. A Greek island perhaps, a life as a farmer or fisherman. Retired, yes, but as a free man on his own soil. A woman and children, why not? With your knowledge, you would be of value; you might even be very popular with the local population and could be of help. No one needs to know why you have settled there.”
Tennberg looked at the Lieutenant and could hardly suppress the hope that had suddenly arisen in him. What the man offered him, seemed to be a probable way as punishment for his deed. And it was better, much better than execution or a life in a cell. But was it also meant to be serious?
The Lieutenant must have considered his concerns. He smiled a thin, cheerless smile. “Doubts, Tennberg?”
“Good. I will not take you on that road now. Perhaps the Captain, if he accepts your cooperation, will, and he arrives shortly. Maybe he doesn’t like my idea. You are so far away from any trust, comradeship, or any security in dealing with us, that I can well imagine that your way back is long and difficult and perhaps not open at all.”
Tennberg nodded. What else could he have said? The man was absolutely right. He felt the fetters loose. He rubbed the wrists, looked at the Lieutenant questioningly.
“That’s it. Think about it. Consider whether Captain Rheinberg is a traitor or an honorable man. Do not close yourselves to others. Consider your opportunities.”
So the man turned away, and the two soldiers left the cell.
The door closed.
Markus Tennberg was alone with his thoughts.
Von Klasewitz looked pleased at the destruction. At first sight, it didn’t seem to be particularly impressive – a simple wall of stones, connected with loose mortar, which was still moistened by the weather, stood before him. There was a big hole in it, caused by a round ball of solid granite fired by his cannon. Probably the wall would have been damaged if the two legionaries, who stood beside the German, would’ve thrown the bullet with muscular force. Nevertheless, everyone was satisfied. Among the observers, Roman officers, some craftsmen, and other legionaries guarding the site, there was a good mood. Klasewitz allowed himself a smile.
It was done.
Almost lovingly, the time-traveler looked at the marvel of technology to which he owed this success. The cannon was made of bronze, the simplest alloy to be produced, and a second one, made of cast iron, stood directly beside it. This one had not yet passed its test.
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