Chapter One

"My grandfather fought in the great war," the older man said.

"I know," replied the younger. "You told me a hundred times."

"Twelve thousand of them, and only a handful of us. And if they hadn't..."

"...cut off the water supply, we'd still be free today," continued the young one. "And then they burned the city to the ground, and then the king took his own life rather than surrender."

"And the bastards stole seven thousand talents of gold..."

"...from the waters of Sargesia. Because a traitor told them where it was. Otherwise we'd still have it today."

There was silence.

"Fucking Romans," finally said the old man and spat on the grass.

The young man sighed and looked around. The hills rolled softly into the distance, constant green except for the occasional patch of yellow farmland or some dark brown orchard. To his side, he could see the river Maris glistening in the sun. If he squinted, he could even make out the port being built there by the soldiers. Huge wooden structures on big wheels, the likes of which might have been used to siege a fortress, were being set up on both banks. The foreign engineers were converting a bend into a gulf by digging and dredging; for the Dacians living in Apoulon, the technology was amazing and revolutionary.

He shifted his gaze, measuring up his companion. The old man had survived over seventy winters, which was very respectable, and it didn't seem like he had plans to join Zalmoxis anytime soon. He was tough and rough and had obviously seen a lot, been through a lot. But the one thing that the winters had failed to develop in him was a sense of humour. Or maybe it was those winters that quenched it, thought the young man philosophically.

"You know, they're not even Romans," he said, challengingly, looking down with a tiny smirk, and letting his long, blond hair fall all over his face.

"Who aren't?"

"The Gemina. The legionaries."

"The hell you say! This is the legion that crossed the Rubicon with Caesar! The legion that conquered Gaul!"

"You know very well that was over a hundred and fifty years ago. Obviously they're not the same people today, are they? I've spoken to them, and..."

"You did what?!" The old man was aghast. "You conspired with the enemy?"

The young man rolled his eyes and waved impatiently.

"They've been here for over a hundred winters now, fighting alongside us against everyone else. They may have been the enemy when your grandfather lived, but right now, they're not even Romans anymore."

"How the hell can Roman soldiers not be Romans?"

"They simply aren't. Like I said, I've spoken to them. Not one of them ever even saw Rome in his life. They're Sarmatians, most of them. And their archers? They're Arameans, the lot of them. Farther from Rome than we are," said the young man.

The old man grumbled and looked away.

"All I'm saying is, today, right now, they're not all that bad."

"Well, they murdered ten thousand Dacians, boy!" countered the old man.

"Their grand-dads murdered ten thousand of our grand-dads. Yes, that much is true. Also true, we murdered thousands and thousands of them. Besides, how many Dacians would've died in meaningless clan fights, anyway?"

"The king had united the clans!"

"Yes. To fight the Romans. We could talk about this ad nauseam," sighed the young man.

"Where the hell did you pick up that word now?!"

"What, ad nauseam? It means we can keep at it until we get sick," explained the other. "You have to get used to it, you know. The world is changing. Our language is changing. What, didn't people use to mix Greek into it too, before the Romans came?"

"We're losing ourselves," the elder commented sourly. "We're becoming diluted in history and a thousand years from now, people won't even remember we were here."

"Look behind you," said the other.

The great walls of the Apulum castra loomed above them. To their left, the double main gate, called Porta Principalis Dextra, stood open under two stone arches, at both ends of a short, easily defensible tunnel. Beyond it, on either sides of the road, were the legionaries barracks, painted in gleaming white. In front of them, a half maniple was just getting in formation for daily practice. Their centurion was walking among the ranks, carefully inspecting each man's gear.

"Just look at that," he insisted. "Over twenty thousand podes of stone and barracks and fortifications and gardens and the damn governor's house and enough marble statues to fill a village. That thing will last forever," he said with conviction.

"And what if it will? It's not Dacian."

"Can you write? Or carve a statue?" asked the young man.

"Of course not."

"Well, what the hell do you want to leave behind then? Your hat?"

Finally, the old man let out a short, raspy laugh. He took off his rough, woollen cap, revealing long, thick and white hair, and inspected the object; with his other hand, he stroked his trimmed, equally white beard. He smiled at his younger friend and said, nodding:

"What? It's a good hat, this."

The young man laughed heartily and yanked it out of his hand. Still laughing, he started down the hill, and after a few steps, he threw the cap back over his shoulder. The older man caught it without blinking.

"Come on," said the young shepherd, and whistled once.

A couple of dogs barked in reply and quickly ran to him, and the flock of sheep that they were looking after followed sluggishly. They went down the hill, away from the Apulum castra, home of the Thirteenth Twin Legion that called themselves the Gemina in Latin, and continued bickering.

There was not a cloud in the sky. The warm summer air was barely moving, but the old man still kept his hat on. They walked slowly on the concrete road, one on each side of the draining ditch. The Roman roads were indeed another marvel of engineering. They required almost no maintenance, and simply being able to walk without getting bogged in mud felt nothing short of amazing to the conquered Dacians.

From the opposite direction came two riders. The Dacians stopped, squinted and waited for them to get closer. They were two centurions; one old, one young. Men and horses looked tired, after what looked to have been a long journey.

The horses stopped a few steps in front of the two Dacians. The older centurion opened his mouth to speak, but before he could, his riding partner yelled, in loud Latin:

"Hail Rome!"

"Fuck off," instantly replied both Dacians at unison, also in Latin.

This angered the young centurion. His eyes grew large and his hand shot to the handle of the gladius hanging on his belt. Annoyed, the older man turned to him on his horse, and said:

"Shut the fuck up, Cornelius." And then, to the Dacians, almost apologetically: "He's new. Greetings, Aramus. And to you, old man."

"His name," said the old Dacian pointing to the shepherd, "is Aram. Aramus makes it sound like he's a kitten."

"I don't care if it makes it sound like he's a turtle," replied the centurion in turn. "All I know is, with your strange names, I can't tell who's a boy or who's a girl. So get used to it."

Before the other Dacian could reply, young Aram spoke placatingly:

"Where are you coming from, Naevius?"

"Porolissum," answered the tired soldier.

"And what news from the municipium?" asked Aram.

"The interesting kind," answered the other. "You'll never believe who was there."

"Surprise us."

"Only the emperor. Marcus Aurelius Septimius Bassianus Antoninus Caracalla, in the flesh."

"Well, imagine our honour," said the old Dacian. "A true, real-life Roman emperor, straight out of the denari coin, all the way here in Dacia. Tell me, Roman, is his name really Caracalla?"

"I heard that his troops gave him the name, back in the Germania campaigns. He didn't win, but he bribed some Germans into submission and so tried to call himself 'Germanicus', but the jokers kept calling him 'Caracalla', like the Gallic hooded tunic he took to wearing all the time."

"How interesting," said Aram.

"Yes, especially for the Germans," commented the old Dacian cynically. "And what's the great Emperor Tunic doing in Porolissum, of all places?"

"Well, if you must know, it was to do with all these tribes and clans of yours," answered Naevius.

That got the old Dacian's attention.

"Which tribes and clans, pray tell?"

"The Quadi. And the Marcomanni."

"Hardly our tribes, then. Both of those are nothing but plundering nomad bastards."

"Who can tell, these days? To the emperor, you're all the same. I tell you," said the centurion leaning down on the horse to press the point, "this land of yours isn't worth the trouble. Mark my words: soon enough, Rome will decide to cut its losses and bugger off this damn place."

"More like cut its winnings," said the old man wryly.

"Yeah Naevius, why wait then?" joined in Aram. "West face, forward, march!"

The young soldier, who had been fuming quietly, spoke again:

"Are you really going to let these barbarians talk to us this way, Naevius?"

The old centurion turned to him and raised his eyebrows, without saying a word. The other held his gaze for a few seconds, then looked down.

"So, what about your emperor and the Quadi?" asked Aram.

Naevius turned to face him again.

"He's just being himself. He invited the chieftain of the Quadi for peace negotiations, and then immediately had him killed."

"He killed Gaiobomar?!" spoke the old Dacian, not quite believing.

"Gaiobomarus," corrected the centurion sarcastically. "Yep, ran him through in front of his men, then ran his men through, too."

"Well, fuck me," mused the old man.

"No, thanks," replied the centurion. "Anyway, time to go. Aramus, when you finally decide to join the legion, look me up."

Aram laughed.

"What, and give up wearing pants?"

"Seriously, Aram. We need someone like you in the Gemina."

"Never lose hope, Naevius!" said the young Dacian, waving farewell.

As the Romans left, Aram considered the news. The Emperor of Rome, no more than two days away from him! Exciting times indeed.

A bird's cry interrupted his thoughts. He looked up and saw a hawk circling. What fortunate creature, he thought. Hardly an enemy in the world, truly free to go anywhere and do anything. What I wouldn't give to be like that.

Another startled cry came, this time from the Roman riders. He turned, as did his older companion, if a little slower.

The dogs started barking furiously.

A yellow ribbon-like ray, attached to nothing but the blue sky above, wide as a man with arms outstretched and flat like a sword, was approaching from the east. It made no discernible noise and, for all the surprise it caused, seemed to do no other harm. It came near the two centurions and completely engulfed the young one, who instinctively picked up his shield and raised it above his head. Weirdly, the yellow ray went straight through his wooden and leather shield as it was water. The centurion appeared to be completely golden for a moment, and then the ray moved to his partner.

"Whoa. What the..." uttered Naevius, completely unprepared. He looked at his fellow soldier, who returned his confused gaze. Almost immediately, as the ray left him and headed towards the two Dacians, he tried to warn them.

"Hey... Look out!" he said.

The Dacians were already watching, understanding no more than the Romans. Instinctively, Aram stepped in front of the elder, but was pushed aside. Frowning and apprehensive, the old Dacian stepped right in front of the ray and was engulfed in yellow light a few moments later.

"Kinda looks like Jupiter is pissing on us," remarked the young centurion stupidly.

The light went over the old man and immediately found Aram. He tried to step around it, but the light found him again in an instant. He, too, shot a questioning look at the old man, who simply shrugged and said nothing.

Then, the light turned orange, and then red.

"Looks like someone kicked the shit out of Jupiter and now he's pissing blood," replied Naevius even more stupidly.

The ray stayed red for a few more moments, and then a strange thing happened.

It turned dark.

The summer sun was still shining and there was plenty of light everywhere, but the ray above Aram was like a grey shadow, which turned darker and darker until the young man disappeared in it completely. There was a black flash -- the ray becoming, for an instance, blacker than black -- and then it disappeared in a blink of an eye.

Aram was gone.