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Gods of Rome (Rise of Emperors #3)

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For one to rule, the other must die. 312 AD is a year of horrific and brutal warfare. Constantine's northern army is a small force, plagued by religious rivalries, but seemingly unstoppable as they invade Maxentius' Italian heartlands. These relentless clashes, incidents of treachery and twists of fortune see Maxentius' armies driven back to Rome. Constantine has his prize in sight, yet his army is diminished and on the verge of revolt. Maxentius meanwhile works to calm a restive and dissenting Roman populace. When the two forces clash in the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, there are factors at work beyond their control and soon they are left with carnage. There is only one way Constantine and Maxentius' rivalry will end. With one on a bloodied sword and the other the sole ruler of Rome...

Action / Adventure
Gordon Doherty
Age Rating:

Chapter 1 - The Cottian Alpes, Late Winter 312 AD

We moved through the mountains like winter wolves. The ferocious blizzard sped southwards with us, carried on the famous bora winds, singing a dire song. For days we marched through that driving snow, seeing nothing but great white-clad peaks either side of us; rugged, inhospitable highlands which in these frozen months soldiers were not meant to cross. All around me the gale screamed, boots crunched endlessly through the successively deeper drifts of white, men’s teeth chattered violently, mules brayed, exhausted. It felt at times as if we were wandering, snow-blind, to our deaths, but I knew what lay ahead… so close now.

I called upon my chosen men and a handful of their best soldiers – a group of thirty – and we roved ahead of the army like advance scouts. The blizzard raked through my bear cloak, the snow rattling like slingshot against my gemmed ridge helm and bronze scales as I scoured the valley route. Yet I refused to blink. When the speeding hail of white slowed and the murky grey ahead thinned a little, I saw them: a pair of stone and timber watchtowers, northern faces plastered in snow. Gateposts watching this passage between two realms.

I dropped to my haunches behind the brow of a snowdrift and my chosen men hunkered down with me. I gazed over the drift’s brow, regarding the narrow gap between the towers and the valley route beyond, on through the winter-veined mountains. Thinking of the land that lay beyond these heights, my frozen lips moved soundlessly.


Land of Roman forefathers. Home of the man I had once considered my friend… but that territory was rightfully mine. Mine! My surging anger scattered when I spotted movement atop one of the two towers: a freezing Maxentian scout blowing into his hands, oblivious to our presence. Then the blizzard fell treacherously slack, and the speeding veil of white cleared for a trice. I saw his ice-crusted eyebrows rise as he leaned forward, peering into the momentary clarity, right at us. His eyes bulged, mouth agog.

‘He is here!’ he screamed to be heard over the sudden return of the storm’s wrath. ‘Constantine is h—’

With a wet punch, an arrow whacked into the man’s chest and shuddered there. He spasmed then folded over the edge of the timber parapet and fell like a sack of gravel, crunching into a pillowy snowdrift at the turret’s foot. I glanced to my right, seeing my archer nock and draw again, shifting his bow to the heights of the other tower, his eyes narrowing within the shadow of his helm brow. He loosed, but the dark-skinned sentry up there ducked behind the parapet, screaming and tolling a warning bell. At once, three more Maxentians spilled from the door at the base of that rightmost tower, rushing south towards a simple, snow-topped stable twenty paces away, in the lee of a rocky overhang. This was one of the few gateways through the mountains – albeit the least favoured and most treacherous – and it was guarded by just five men?

Instantly, suspicion and elation clashed like swords in my mind. We had no time to rake over the facts. These watchmen could not be allowed to ride south and warn the legions of Italia. They had to die.

The armoured figures by my side rose with me and surged ahead, each eager to show their valour. They spilled around the rightmost of the two watchtowers. With a crunch, one of my feather-helmed Cornuti legionaries booted open the timber door and rammed his spear into the chest of the dark-skinned scout hurrying down the stairs to join his fleeing comrades. My soldier screamed in time with the dark-skinned one’s death cry, driving him back inside and slamming him against the tower-room’s far wall. Of the three scouts fleeing towards the stables, a hurled javelin took one in the back of the neck. The second turned to attack us, running my Cornuti man through then swinging his blade at me. I blocked his vicious strike then cut deep into his shoulder with a swift downward swipe. He crumpled into the snow in a blossom of red, thrashing in pain, before I put an end to his suffering with a clean thrust to his neck. Yet the man had delayed us just enough: the last of the fleeing trio was now upon his mare. He geed her into a panicked turn, kicking one of my approaching soldiers in the face then breaking into a gallop. South… to his master’s side.

I twisted to my archer, who was taking aim already. ‘Don’t let him escape,’ I growled. The arrow spat forth and my small party halted, panting, watching it fly. It fishtailed and shivered then slashed down, only scoring the man’s thigh before plunging into the snow. The man sped on, chased by the driving blizzard, hugging the steed’s neck, droplets of blood falling in his wake to taint the snow.

‘Bastard!’ Tribunus Batius rumbled nearby, his bull-like form unmistakable in the driving blizzard. He had been by my side since I was a boy – though now he was showing his years, the stubble on his head and broad chin silver like his armour and his brutish features lined with age. The big man twisted to shout back whence we had come. ’Equites! Cataphracti!

‘No,’ I shouted as the bora winds keened and the blizzard softened for a moment, revealing that the rider was already gone from sight. ‘Our hidden approach was never going to see us all the way through this range. We have reached deep into the mountains unseen – done well to get this far. It would be folly to send our precious cavalry charging ahead – what if this weak watch was but a ruse? What if there is a trap further along this valley? Let us advance as one, carefully, while still making the most of our advantage before news reaches our enemy.’

‘Aye. Advance as one – out of this valley and upon Segusium,’ said another voice with a confidence I envied. Krocus, the shaggy-haired leader of the Regii, chin-tied beard encrusted with frost and snow. He and his men had served my father before me and he wore a mesh of battle-scars on his arms and face like marks of honour.

‘The first city that must be taken,’ Batius agreed with a sideways glance at Krocus – once his nemesis but now more of a comrade and a drinking rival. These two, my most trusted generals and leaders of my strongest regiments, did not salt their words with doubt.

A soldier brought me my horse, Celeritas. The dappled-grey stallion was old for a war horse, but still strong, as loyal a companion to me as my trusted generals – and just as stubborn. ‘Signal back to the army,’ I said to the soldier as I took the reins. ‘Bring them forward. We will advance with caution.’ I climbed onto the saddle and patted my horse’s war-scarred neck. I continued gazing south as an iron thunder rose behind me. Forty thousand legionaries and riders cannot move without such a din, you see. I turned my head to watch their approach. I saw standards ancient and proud, bearing hawks, capricorns, leaping hounds and howling wolves. These were the legions of old: the Second Augusta, Father’s Sixth Victrix from Britannia, the Gemina, the Martia, the Primigenia. In days past, each of these regiments counted over five thousand men in their ranks. Now they were smaller but hardier too, with two or three thousand veterans in each. There was my inner core of newer legions too, my comitatus, raised from the tribes – once enemies of the empire but now undyingly loyal to me: Batius’ Cornuti, Krocus’ Regii, the Petulantes, the Ubii and the Bructeri – led by Hisarnis, once a rugged chieftain yet now shaved and shorn and as Roman-looking as a man from the provinces of Italia. Each of these units sported one thousand crack soldiers. The cavalry, a small but hardy component of my army, cantered on the flanks, led by a fearless whoreson of a praepositus by the name of Ingenuus. His standard bearer, Draconarius Vitalianus – a man who also bore the esteemed title of Protector, one of my trusted guards – held the cavalry standard high: the dragon head swallowed the wintry gale and emitted an eerie howl from its tail – a thrashing mass of coloured ribbons.

When this war machine came to a halt behind me like great silver wings outstretched, the ranks raised their spears in the air and bawled in unison, ‘Augustus!’ and I felt every bit the saviour they had proclaimed me to be. Gods, if only I had known then how many of those men would fall in the months that lay ahead…A silence passed, all eyes on me, waiting for my signal to continue through the valley.

I regarded the snowy route ahead and let a thousand futures race through my mind. ‘Are we underestimating him?’ I said quietly. Him, I thought. Once I had called him my brother. Now, I could not even bring myself to utter his name.

’Maxentius is underestimating us, I would say,’ Batius replied, gesturing somewhere into the sea of white-veined peaks. ‘This flimsy outpost is the first of his we have encountered. Word has it that he houses strong forces near Verona. He’s more concerned about the passes from the east. He fears Licinius more than us!’

Licinius, I almost laughed. I had defeated and cowed that eastern mutt, forcing him to agree with me a non-aggression pact. At the time it was merely to remove him from this rapidly building game of power. Now, I realised, it had played perfectly into my hands – for he was a perfect distraction, hovering just beyond Italia’s north-eastern limits, turning all Maxentian eyes from these more treacherous westerly passes. Not all eyes, I mused, thinking of the scouting report I had received a few days ago – of Maxentian soldiers in these mountains about one hundred miles east of our position. ’He did send a small reinforcement garrison to Eporedia to block the most direct route through the mountains.’

Batius scratched his anvil jaw, frost spraying from his bristles as he nodded in agreement. ‘True. And he sent a flotilla to watch the coastal mountain routes. But nothing here in this cursed pass… nothing apart from five men.’

’These were no ordinary watchmen, Domine,’ Krocus reasoned, kneeling by one of the scouts’ corpses. Then he pointed to the trio of still-tethered horses. ‘Those mares are from the imperial stables. The finest. The fastest.’

‘The first of my spoils,’ I said, hot with anger as Maxentius’ litany of aggressions flickered across my thoughts: he had claimed Rome and Italia as his own when they were rightly mine; seized Africa – that great bread basket of the West – as his too; dangled threats of a grain embargo upon me. He had even sent a vile cutthroat to kill me. Worst of all was not the trade threats, the theft or the hired blades. It was the acid words he had spread: Constantine is nought but the son of a whore! He – more than any other – must have known how deep those rumours would burn. For he was there the day my father estranged Mother and me. He was the one in whom I sought counsel. And he had kept that private weakness of mine all these years only to sharpen it into a blade and turn it upon me. Me, the man who had rescued his son from a blazing grain house.

I had tried to resist the clamour to act, the urgent warnings from my advisors… the bare and brutal truth. Then more rumours had spread on top of this, that Maxentius had ordered the massacre of thousands of Rome’s people in a bloody frenzy – an act fitting of Galerius or Diocletian, the emperors of old we once both detested. The boy Maxentius, the friend, the brother, was gone. The cur and his wretched, civilian-massacring Praetorians had given me no choice in the end. Steeling myself, I turned my head to meet the eyes of the buccinators and aquilifers lining the front of my army. ‘Onward,’ I said, my low growl echoing through the valley.

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