The TriumphRobin Hobb
New York Times bestseller Robin Hobb is one of the most popular writers in fantasy today, having sold more than one million copies of her work in paperback. She’s perhaps best known for her epic fantasy Farseer series, including Assassins Apprentice, Royal Assassin, and Assassins Quest, as well as the two fantasy series related to it, the Liveship Traders series, consisting of Ship of Magic, The Mad Ship, and Ship of Destiny, and the Tawny Man series, made up of Fool’s Errand, Golden Fool, and Fool’s Fate. Recently, she’s started a new fantasy series, the Soldier Son series, composed of Shaman’s Crossing, Forest Mage, and her most recently published novel, Renegade’s Magic. Her early novels, published under the name Megan Lindholm, include the fantasy novels Wizard of the Pigeons, Harpy’s Flight, The Windsingers, The Limbreth Gate, Luck of the Wheels, The Reindeer People, Wolf’s Brother, and Cloven Hooves, the science fiction novel Alien Earth, and, with Steven Brust, the collaborative novel The Gypsy.
Here she takes us to the edge of human endurance and considerably beyond, for a harrowing study of the ultimate meaning of loyalty, when everything else has been lost.
The evening winds swept across the plains to the city and pushed on the iron-barred cage hung in the arch of the gate. The man in the cage braced himself against the bite of the inward-facing spikes and stared into the westering sun. He had small choice in that. Before they’d hoisted his cage into position, they’d cut away his eyelids and lashed his wrists to the bars, so that he could not turn away from the fiery gaze of the Carthaginian sun.
The dust-laden wind was drying his bared eyes, and his vision was dwindling. Tears, the tears of his body rather than the tears of his heart, ran unchecked down his cheeks. The severed muscles that had once worked his eyelids twitched in helpless reflex; they could not moisten his eyeballs and renew his vision. Just as well; there was little out there he wished to see.
Earlier in the day there had been a crowd below him. They’d lined the street to watch the laughing, mocking soldiers roll him along inside the spiked barrel of his cage. Despite the earlier torture he had endured, he’d still had a bit of defiance in him then. He’d seized the bars of the cage and braced himself, fighting the momentum of the bumping, bouncing cage as they tumbled him along. He hadn’t been completely successful. The spikes inside the cage were too long for that. They’d scored his body in a dozen places. Still, he’d avoided any immediately mortal wounds. He now doubted the wisdom of that.
At the bottom of the hill, beneath the arch of the city gates, the crowd had roared with avid approval when his guards dragged him out and sliced the eyelids from his face. “Face the sunset, Regulus! It’s the last one you’ll see, dog of a Roman! You’ll die with the sun today!” Then they’d forced him back into his spiked prison, lashing his wrists to the bars before they hoisted him up high so that all might have a good view of the Roman consul’s slow death.
His torment had drawn a sizable crowd. The Carthaginians hated him, and with good reason. Very good reason. They’d never forgive him for the many defeats he’d dealt them, or forget the impossible treaty terms he’d offered them after the battle at Adys. He bared what remained of his broken teeth in a grin. He still had that to be proud of. His gallery had pelted his cage with rocks and rotten vegetables and offal. Some of the missiles had ricocheted off the iron bars that confined him, a shield wall that flung their insults back into their upturned faces. Others had found their mark. Well, that was to be expected. No defense was completely impenetrable. Even the Carthaginians could hit a target sometimes. He had tucked his chin to his chest to offer his eyes what shelter he could from the dazzling African sun and looked down at the crowd. They’d been both exultant and furious. They had him caged, Marcus Atillius Regulus, and their torturers had wreaked on him all that for so long they had desired to do, but feared. His final defiance of them had pressured them to do their worst. And now they would watch him die in a cage hung from the city gates of Carthage.
His cracked lips pulled wide in a smile as he looked down at the hazy crowd. A film obscured his vision, but it seemed to him that there were not so many of them as there had been. Watching a man die painfully offered an hour or two of amusement to vary their tepid lives, but Regulus had prolonged their voyeurism too long, and they had wearied of it. Most had returned to the routine tasks of their ordinary lives. He gripped the bars firmly, and with all his will he bade his fingers to hold fast and his trembling legs braced him upright. It would be his last victory, to deny them any spectacle at his passing. He willed himself to take another breath.
* * * *
Flavius looked up at the man in the cage. He swallowed. Marcus appeared to be looking straight at him. He resisted the temptation to look aside and tried to meet his old friend’s gaze. Either Marcus could not see Flavius or knew that if he recognized him and reacted to him in anyway, his old friend would pay with his life. Or perhaps more than four years of slavery in Carthage had changed Flavius so much that even his childhood friend could not recognize him. He had never been a fleshy man, and the hardships of slavery had leaned even his soldier’s muscles from his frame. He was a bone man now, skeletal and ravaged by the harsh African sun. He was ragged and he stank, not just his unwashed body but also the dirty sodden bandage that wrapped the still-oozing injury on his left thigh.
He’d “escaped” from his master a scant month ago; it had not required much subterfuge. The overseer was a sot, more intent on drinking each day than on wringing work out of slaves that were no longer capable of real labor. One night, as the slaves made their weary way in from the grain fields, Flavius had lagged behind. He had limped more and more slowly and finally, while the overseer was haranguing another slave, he had dropped down amongst the rustling stalks and lain still. The grain was tall enough to conceal his supine body; they would not locate him without a search, and even so, in the failing light, they might miss him. But the old sot had not seemed to notice even that he was one slave short. When the moonless night had deepened, Flavius had crawled to the far edge of the field and then tottered to his feet and limped away. The old injury to his leg had already been suppurating. He had known then that the broken dragon tooth inside it had begun to move again. The pain had awakened memories of how he’d taken the injury, and made him think of Marcus and wonder about his friend’s fate.
How long had it been since he’d last seen him? Time slipped around when a man was a slave. Days seemed longer when someone else owned every minute of your time. A summer of forced labor in Carthage could seem a lifetime with the sun beating down on a man’s head and back. He counted the harvests he could recall and then decided that it had been over four years since he’d seen Marcus. Over four years since that disastrous battle where everything went wrong. On the plains of the Bagradas, not far from the cursed river of the same name, Consul Marcus Atillius Regulus had gone down in defeat. Flavius had been one of the five hundred soldiers taken prisoner. Some of those who had survived had pointed out that being captured alive was one step above being one of the twelve thousand Roman dead who littered the bloody battlefield. On the longest days of his slavery, Flavius had doubted that.
His eyes were drawn again to his friend and commander. The spikes had pierced him in a dozen places, but blood no longer trickled from the injuries. The dust-laden summer wind had crusted them over. His chest and belly looked like a map of a river system where the red trickles had dried to brown. Stripped of armor and garments, naked as a slave, Marcus’ body still showed the musculature and bearing of a Roman soldier. They had tortured him and hung him up to die, but they still hadn’t managed to break him. The Carthaginians never would.
After all, it had not been th
e Carthaginians who managed to defeat Consul Regulus, but a hired general, one Xanthippus, a Spartan, a man who led his troops not out of love for his country but for cold coin. The Carthaginians had hired him when their own Hamilcar had been unable to deliver the victories they needed. If Marcus had been fully cognizant of what that change in command would mean, perhaps he would not have pressed his men so hard toward their last encounter. That fateful day, the sun had beat down on them as fiercely as if it were a Carthaginian ally. Dust and heat had tormented the troops as Marcus had marched his forces round a lake. Toward evening, the weary soldiers approached the river Bagradas. On the other side, their enemy awaited them. Everyone had expected that their leader would order them to strike a camp, to fortify it with a wall and a ditch. They’d counted on a meal and a night of rest before they engaged in battle. But Marcus had promptly ordered his forces to cross the river and confront the waiting army, thinking to confound the Carthaginian force with his bravado.
Had Hamilcar been the Carthaginian general, the tactic might have worked. Everyone knew that Carthaginians avoided fighting in the open, for they dared not stand against the organized might of a Roman army. But Xanthippus was a Spartan and not to be taken in by show. Nor did he allow his men to fight like Carthaginians. Marcus had drawn his force confidently into their standard formation, infantry in the middle and their cavalry flanking them on both sides, and moved boldly forward. But Xanthippus had not drawn back. Instead, he sent his elephants crashing squarely into the middle of the infantry formation. Even so, the beleaguered square of infantry had held. Flavius had been there. They had fought like Romans, and the lines had held. But then Xanthippus had split his cavalry, a tactic that Flavius had never seen in such a situation. When the horses thundered down on them from both sides, their own outnumbered cavalry had gone down, and then the flanks of the infantry formation had caved in and given way. It had been chaos and bloody slaughter the like of which he’d never seen. Some men, he had heard, had escaped, to flee to Aspis and be rescued later by the Roman fleet. Those soldiers had gone home. Flavius and close to five hundred others had not.
Consul Marcus Atillius Regulus had been a prized captive and a valuable hostage and was treated as such. But Flavius had been only a soldier, and not even one from a wealthy family. His body and the work he could do had been his only worth to the victors. As a spoil of war, he’d been sold for labor. He’d taken a blow to the head in the course of the defeat; he’d never know if it had been from a horse’s hoof or a random slingstone. But for a time, he’d seen rings around torches at night and staggered to the left whenever he tried to walk. He’d been sold cheap, and his new master put him to work in his grain fields. And there he had toiled for the last four years. Some seasons he plowed and some he planted, and in the heat of the summer as the grain began to ripen, he’d moved through the field, shouting and flapping his arms to keep the greedy birds at bay. Rome and his soldiering days, his wife and his children, and even Marcus, the boyhood friend who had gotten him into this situation, all had begun to fade from his thoughts. Sometimes he’d felt that he had been a slave always.
And then one night he’d awakened to a familiar pain, and known that the dragon’s tooth was once more moving inside his flesh. And within a handful of days, he’d limped away from his overseer.
Had the shifting tooth in the old wound been an omen, a warning from the gods of what was to come? Flavius had given small thought to such things in recent years. The gods of his youth had forsaken him; why should he care any longer to give them honor or even regard? Yet it seemed to him now that the tooth’s stirring on the final leg of its journey through his flesh might have come close to the time when Marcus was making his final appearance before the Chief Magistrates of Rome. In the days that followed, the old wound had swollen, turned scarlet, and then began to crust and ooze. And on those same days, he heard the gossip that even Carthaginian slaves would repeat. “The war will soon be over. They paroled the Consul to Rome, to present their treaty terms for them. Consul Regulus is to meet with the Roman magistrates and convince them that it’s useless to defy us. He gave his word that if Rome did not accept the terms, he’d return to Carthage.”
Flavius had shaken his head and turned wordlessly away from their rumors. Marcus had gone home without him? Marcus had gone home, abandoning the five hundred men who had once served him? Marcus would present Carthaginian terms of surrender to Rome and urge them to accept them? That did not seem like Marcus. For three days, he had mulled it over as he limped through a grain field, flapping his arms at black birds. Then he had decided that the moving tooth inside his flesh was a message. That very day, he had made his escape and begun his slow journey back toward the city of Carthage.
It was a long and weary way for a man half-crippled, without a coin or a purse to put it in. He’d traveled by night, stealing what he could from fields and outlying farmsteads. He avoided speaking to anyone, for although he had learned Punic during his servitude, his Roman accent was strong and would betray him. As the miles between him and his former owner had increased, he’d become a bit more bold. He’d stolen worn garments from a ragpicker’s cart that were much more serviceable than the twist of cloth his owner had given him. He’d begged, too, sitting at a village gate and showing his oozing wound and bony body, and a few fools had taken pity on him. And so he had made his slow way, step by step, toward Carthage.
Two nights ago, he had camped in sight of the city walls. As evening fell, he’d found a place to sleep in the dubious shelter of a leafless grove of trees. In the night, he’d wakened to the fever of his wound. In the feeble light of a full moon, he had mustered his courage, set his teeth, and bore down on the swollen tissue. He’d gripped his thigh’s hot flesh in both hands and squeezed, pushing up and away from the bone. The dragon’s tooth had emerged slickly, jabbing its way out of his body just as bloodily as it had gone in. It had passed through his entire leg, from back to front. He’d pulled it from his flesh, his wet fingers slipping on the gleaming white tooth’s smooth surface. When he’d finally tugged it from its hiding place, a gush of foul liquid and pus had followed it. And for the first time in over six years, he finally felt alone in his body, freed of the dragons tooth and its presence in his life. For a short time, he had held the tooth in his hands, sick with marvel at how long he had carried it. It was sharper than any arrow, and longer than his forefinger. The snapped-off stump where it had broken from the monster’s jaw was still sharp-edged. He clutched it in his hand and slept well that night, despite hunger and a bed that was no more than dirt and tree roots.
The next morning, he had risen, bound his old injury afresh, and limped off in search of Marcus. Midway through his first day of walking, he found a likely stick along the roadside and made it his staff. At dusk that day, he came to a sluggish flow of water in a sunken stream. He’d followed it upstream, into a farmer’s field, and found a quiet place to bathe his wound and wash out his scant clothing and his bandaging. He’d stolen handfuls of underripe grain from the field, filling his belly with the milky, chewy kernels. When he lay down that night to sleep, he’d dreamed of home, but not of his wife and his sons. No. He’d dreamed of a time before them.
His father’s small acreage had been adjacent to that of Marcus’ family. Neither parent was a wealthy man, but while Flavius’ father was a farmer who had been to war, Marcus’ father had risen to the rank of Consul and never forgotten it. His family holding had been twelve acres, while Marcus’ father could claim only a scanty seven, yet when Marcus was recounting his father’s heroism, Flavius had always felt he was the poorer of the two boys. He smiled bitterly to himself. When Marcus’ father had died, Marcus had been devastated, not just by the man’s death but also by the thought that his days as a warrior were finished. Marcus had gone to the Roman Senate and reluctantly requested to be freed from his military duty, so that he might return home to till his seven acres and support his wife and children and mother, for with his father gone, there was
no one else to shoulder that task. Yet even in that early flush of his career, the Senate had recognized his military worth. They’d taken from taxes the funds to hire a man to till the lands of Marcus Atillius Regulus and sent him forth yet again to serve Rome where he functioned best, at the bloody forefront of the war.
Marcus had gone joyfully. Flavius had shaken his head over it then even as he did now. War and its glory were all Marcus had ever wanted. When they were boys, in the green of their youth, they had both dreamed of escaping their chores for the adventure of soldiering. They’d counted down the musterings until they reached an age when they, too, could stand with the other eligible men in the town square and await a chance to be chosen to serve. They’d both been seventeen years tall and of a like height at that first dilectus, and it had been Marcus who had contrived that they must find a way to stand four men apart. “For we shall be called forward four at a time, for the tribunes to have the pick of us. If we go up together, one will choose me and another you, and then we shall certainly be separated. So, see that you come up after me, for if I can at all, I shall whisper to the tribune that chooses me that although you may not have the muscle I show, there is no one like to you for an arrow well shot or a spear flung straight. I’ll see that so long as we march to war, we always march together. That I promise you.”
“And what of our marching home? Do you promise we shall always be together then?”
Marcus had stared at him, affronted. “Of course we shall! In triumph!”
Small matter to Marcus that, if Flavius had had his way after his first stint of soldiering, he might have stayed at home, well away from the gore and boredom of a soldier’s life. But of course, he had no choice; no son of a Roman citizen did. And so at that first muster he stood, knees slightly bent to blend in with three shorter youths, and watched Marcus being chosen. He saw his frantic whispering and pointing, and he saw the stony-faced tribune who waved an angry hand at him to silence him. But when the time came for the tribune to choose from the four men offered him, he had chosen Flavius. And thus the two boyhood friends had marched off together for their first foray into a soldier’s life.