Somewhere in the Oceanus Atlanticus
In the middle of the storm Marcus Varrus Trogia checked his gold pocket watch again, a useless reflex. Ten minutes before, he believed he had made the greatest discovery in the history of the Roman Empire, outlined in the rain-shrouded specter of a new world.
Since that story is true, then perhaps our lost Roman colony did survive the past twenty-six years, Marcus had thought then. Along with Gaius Quintillius Marcus' childhood hero, later the Empire's greatest traitor.
Five minutes later, Marcus realized he wasn't the first to make the discovery.
Now he knew he was about to die.
There was no doubting the enemy closing on him. The dark silhouettes were long and low and sleek, the prows curved and he knew though the storm hid such details carved into fantastical monsters. Their single sails, like the double-storied Dragon ships themselves, cried defiance to the storm, were indeed were the storm's masters.
Northmen. Northmen they named themselves, born of Ultima Thule and other wintry lands where darkness consumed half the year. The scourges of Britannia, Germania, North Africa— and Iberia, God have mercy. So does Fortune quickly withdraw her favor.
Marcus stood calmly on his flagship's deck, little aware of the splattering rain and his crew scurrying and shouting as wildly as the sudden freak storm. His own Stoicism surprised him, considering the fleet materializing out of the tempest already outnumbered his own seven ships twofold with more appearing on every new wave.
The Scandian ships vaulted the mountainous ocean crests and pounced on Marcus' fleet like Julius Caesar's assassins.
Perhaps His thoughts turned cold. If we offer no fight, the Northmen may spare my men for a prisoner exchange. But not him. Not the commander of the Fifteenth Legion Apollinaris, nephew of the capricious old Emperor Maxentius Caesar who shattered the fragile peace with the Northmen and launched the war.
Marcus vowed there would be no surrender. His Roman Empire would no longer be recognizable to Augustus or Vespasian or Marcus Aurelius, or Claudius Gothicus the Great who saved it for centuries to come, but he was still a Roman commander. He would bow to no enemy—especially not on the edge of a new world.
He checked his watch, then angrily shoved it back into his tunic. One last useless reflex in a life built on manipulated reflexes. This was where they carried him. He longed for just one single moment to decide his own fate for himself—another useless wish now.
God save us from the fury of the Northmen, Marcus prayed.
The Northmen came.
The Romans cannons never had a clear shot but the Northmen, masters of the ocean as Rome once ruled the Mediterranean, smashed the Roman masts to kindling as if saturating their cannonballs with heathen magic.
An instant later a Dragon ship cast ropes at his starboard side and filling his deck with the brawny human animals whose chain-link armor gleamed through the horizontal downpour. Their war whoops gored him as surely as would their enormous broadswords, the weapons they made far more effective than legionnaires did their projectii—moreso now since the powder was soaked.
Half his men dead, his ship ruined and foundering—at least no berserkers, thank the Merciful Savior—Marcus Trogia bowed to the recognition that he was not in the Rome of Augustus or Claudius, but Maxentius: He surrendered.
The Northmen's leader was neither the biggest among them nor the oldest. There was no way for Marcus to tell if the beast was nobility, such as they knew it. But the Northman's narrow downward glare made the legionary commander want to melt obliviously into the ocean forever.
The Roman knew enough Northern speech to ask: "What will you do with us?"
The Scandian responded in perfect Latin, "Take you to the emperor."
An hour later the storm cleared, Sol itself celebrating the Northmen's triumph. Now the ships became daggers, slicing long, straight wounds into the ocean and not even opposing winds offered resistance. At dawn on the second day, the captain ordered Marcus hauled out of the hull and brought on deck before him.
The hazy coastline appeared to the west. Perhaps there was a Roman colony here on the other side of the ocean. . . . The captain's appearance axed Marcus' thoughts. But if there was, it will be long dead and cremated.
"I am Hallbjorn of Uppsala," came the sole introduction. He stood a full head higher than Marcus and was as broad as a Roman galleon. His face was angular and ruddy, the whole of his power concentrated in his eyes. His red hair and beard curled into tight ringlets, and his mustache drooped over either side of his chin. He wore no armor now—what to fear from this little Roman?—but simply a plain, belted forest green tunic plunging almost to his knees, dark brown slacks and laced boots, and his wicked broadsword slung across his back. His eyes gleamed, from amusement or mockingly the Roman couldn't tell.
Or hunger. It was whispered that Northmen ate the hearts of Roman prisoners—that their King Harthrathi had eaten hundreds. Marcus wasn't so quick to dismiss those rumors now.
"Marcus Varrus Trogia," he said haltingly. "Commander of the Fifteenth Legion . . . " And there he trailed away. The onetime queller of uprisings in Germania and Palestina, even Britannia, could no longer summon the courage to admit being Maxentius Caesar's nephew and third in line to the throne.
"Bring him," Hallbjorn ordered. "Gently—so he doesn't break."
Marcus expected to be chained and tossed overboard. Instead he found himself in a small but comfortable cabin in the stern furnished in the disgusting Germanic fashion: a high table with chairs, albeit ornately carved, rather than the purer Roman style of dining from a low couch. The far end contained a narrow bed nailed to the floor and covered with plush green and white silk sheets. A wide, perfectly round red carpet lay beneath all the opulent furniture. Hallbjorn offered him a Roman goblet filled to the brim with red wine.
"It's not poisoned," the Northman said.
"Spoils of war?" Marcus snarled with more ferocity than he would have imagined from himself.
"Why are you here, Roman?"
"I will not answer—"
"That was a rhetorical question, fool. Drink."