Titus and Herod: Conclusion- A Marching With Caesar® Story

This is the final part of the short story featuring Titus Pullus and Herod. At least, for this episode; stay tuned for more adventures when the 10th Legion is forced to return to Judea to help Herod besiege Jerusalem!

What the others and I were staring at was a well-built, albeit small fortress, made of closely-fitted and dressed stone and mortar perched atop the opposite side of the ravine. In and of themselves the walls were not particularly high; perhaps ten feet of wall, plus another three feet of parapet to provide partial cover for the defenders. In fact, if the structure were located out in the middle of a plain, or even atop a hill, it would be short work for my Legion to overwhelm, and the dimensions of the fortress were such that I was sure it could not hold more than a thousand men, and that was if they lined the four walls shoulder to shoulder, all the way around. But unfortunately for me, my men and those of ben-Judah, this was not the case. Whoever had built this had placed it in about as perfect a position as it is possible to do; from what I could see, the base of the wall was placed no more than two feet from the edge of the sheer precipice that towered over the opposite side of the ravine. The slope of the far side was not truly vertical, but it was close enough that for all practical purposes the only way it could be ascended was by a ladder. However, the rocky face was sufficiently jagged, with outcroppings and the like that would make placing ladders extremely difficult; under fire from overhead, it would be suicidal. The fortress was located in the elbow of a bend in the ravine, the floor of the dry wash disappearing to the right.

“The ravine empties out right outside the city walls,” Joseph informed me, although that was not particularly helpful at the moment, and I was not shy about pointing that out.

“That town might as well be on the moon if we can’t figure out a way to get past that,” I pointed to the fortress, the wall facing us blending in with the precipice below, informing me that it was native rock, probably carved out of a makeshift quarry.

Joseph only gave a grim nod in reply as he continued to study the obstacle.

Finally, he turned to me, a grim smile on his face as he asked, “I do not suppose you have any ideas?”

The truth was that I did not, other than a straightforward and therefore extremely bloody assault, and I will admit that for the first time I actually was willing for a Legion other than the 10th to take all the glory of reducing this fortress, knowing that the cost would be higher than one I was willing to pay. Especially because it helped Herod; ally of Antonius he may have been, but that did not mean any of my men needed to die because of the fat bastard.

Realizing that Joseph was in fact expecting an answer, I finally sighed and shook my head, saying, “Unless there’s a way to get behind that thing, I’m afraid that it has to be up and over. And that,” I finished, my tone matching his expression, “is going to be costly.”

Although I could tell I was just confirming his fears, he looked disappointed nonetheless, and without saying anything more, we began crawling backward away from the rocks that had been our observation point.


On our return to the command group, we informed Sosius and Herod of what we had seen. When we were finished, I saw Herod open his mouth, looking very much like he was disposed to make an issue of our assessment, but Joseph caught his eye, and although I did not see it, I assume gave him some sort of warning look, because Herod’s mouth snapped shut like a fish grabbing onto a baited hook. Clearly oblivious, Sosius sat his horse, silently musing over the problem.

“And you don’t see any other way than coming up the ravine?” he asked finally.

“It’s going to be a matter of trying to decide what will cost us less casualties,” I explained. “If we come from the opposite side, although I couldn’t see that well, what I did see was nothing but open rock. Although,” I added as a thought occurred to me, “I will say that the wall on that side doesn’t have the added height from the face of the ravine. So our ten-foot ladders would be more than enough to get over the wall. The only problem is that we would have to cover what looks like at least two hundred paces of completely bare ground to get there.”

“And I promise you that Antigonus has a very able complement of slingers,” Joseph pointed out.

That, I knew, was something of an understatement. Now that I had marched with Jewish soldiers on multiple occasions, I had had several opportunities to watch their slingers in action, and being truthful I would put them behind only the troops from the Balearics when it came to skill and marksmanship. This was made even more true by virtue of the fact that, ever since we had marched with Aulus Ventidius, any slingers who marched in our ranks used the lead missile that he developed for use against the Parthian cataphracts. And I had to assume the possibility that word of the lethality of those lead missiles had spread among those men who used the sling as their weapon.

“What’s the possibility that some or all of those slingers are using lead shot?” I asked Joseph.

I got the answer before he opened his mouth, just by his expression. I would not say he looked guilty, but the flush that came over his dark features indicated an awareness of something that he knew I would not like.

To his credit he did not hesitate in saying, “Very likely,” he admitted. “I know that some of the men who were with us in Parthia are fighting for Antigonus.”

“Who?” Herod cut in, his face matching ben-Judah’s in hue. “I want their names! I will cut down those traitorous dogs as soon as I defeat the usurper!”

I was not alone in staring in open contempt at the fat Judean king who seemed more concerned with personal matters than the cost to the lives of not just his men, but those who were in all likelihood going to be bearing the brunt of the casualties. Glancing over at Sosius, I saw that he was as coldly furious as I was, but while Herod seemed oblivious, it was clear that Joseph was not.

“Highness,” his tone was as sharp as I imagine he thought he could get away with, “that is really not the concern at this moment. We need to determine the best way to overcome this fortress. Getting even can wait, can it not?”

Only then did Herod seem to sense the eyes on him, but I could see that he really did not like the manner in which Joseph addressed him.

However, neither could he ignore it, and he gritted his teeth as he muttered, “Very well. You are…correct, Joseph. We need to crush this position,” he waved a dismissive hand in the direction of the fortified position, his tone suggesting that this was nothing more consequential than stepping on a beetle. “The real prize is in Jericho.”

Ironically enough, for one of the few times Herod was actually saying something that I knew the men would agree with, even if he was referring to something very different from what they had in mind. Behind those walls was his rival Antigonus, for whom none of us could give a rotten fig. As far as the men were concerned, there was money, in the form of the loot that whoever took the town would be able to carry off, and not all of the valuables would be in the form of coins, jewelry or statues made of precious metals. In fact, I well knew that much of what would be carried away from the town of Jericho would be kicking and screaming. If these trophies were lucky, they would live to see another day, but while most did, I also knew there was a small minority of men who harbored a darkness within themselves that would only be quenched in blood. First, however, we had to get past this fortress, and as proud as I was, and still am of the 10th, I can say in all honesty that this was one task that I did not want for my men, because I knew it would be a bloody business taking that pile of rock, and with precious little to show for it.

Then, Herod had to open his big mouth and change everything.

“General,” he addressed Sosius, “I believe that whichever of your Legions takes this fortress should be the one that enjoys the spoils from Jericho. Do you agree?”

Sosius looked surprised, as did Spurius, neither of them any less than I, even as I inwardly cursed the Judean king for a cunning bastard.

Sosius only hesitated for a moment before replying, “I do, Your Highness. I think that’s an excellent suggestion.” He turned to look down at Spurius and I standing side by side, a small smile on his face, and it reminded me that, Roman or not, the highborn always look out for each other. “Well?” he asked us, “Who wants to have the honor of taking this fortress in order to enjoy the spoils afterward?”

I glanced over at Spurius, who like most men was several inches shorter than me, but I was pleased to see that he looked as unhappy as I felt.

Suddenly, I turned to the mounted officers and as politely as I could, addressed Sosius and ignored Herod, asking, “Sir, do you mind if Primus Pilus Spurius and I walk off a bit to discuss this between us?”

Although Sosius did not look upset, out of the corner of my eye I saw Herod’s face, his mouth opening in what I assume would be a protest, but Sosius beat him to it by saying, “Of course. Take your time.” He gave us a twisted smile, finishing, “They’re not going anywhere.”

Spurius and I walked far enough away that we could not be overheard. For a moment neither of us spoke before I finally sighed and asked, “Well? How are we going to settle this?”

“Fuck all if I know,” he said bitterly. “That fat cunnus did us neatly, I’ll give him that. I don’t know how you feel about it, but I wasn’t looking forward to taking that fucking place.” He gave me a sidelong glance, but I did not hold it against him when he continued, “Being honest, I was hoping your boys would get the filthy end of the sponge on this one, and mine would go over the wall and take the loot.”

“Great minds must think alike,” I joked, “because that’s exactly what I was thinking.” I sighed again, making sure my back was turned to the mounted officers. “I don’t suppose there’s any way that the men won’t hear about this.”

“With that fucking Jew?” Spurius spat, his mouth twisting into a bitter grimace. “No chance of that. He’d be sure to have some of his boys spread the word that we were given the choice of taking the fortress in return for the loot in that town.”

Again, that was exactly what I had been thinking, sure as I could be that Herod would ensure that the men of both Legions would learn that we had been presented with this choice.

“Of course,” I was speaking almost to myself, “none of those ungrateful bastards will care that we’re trying to keep them alive because we’ve seen that fucking thing, and they haven’t.”

“No, they won’t,” Spurius agreed. “Especially since whoever sits out won’t have seen it. Then there will be no end to the moaning on how their Primus Pilus fucked them out of the loot in that town.”

“And you know that by the time they’re through that town will have been stuffed full of riches beyond imagining,” I put in, although I am sure I was just finishing his thought for him. “no matter how much of a cachole it is.” Realizing that, as accurate as it may have been, this was not productive, so I asked with a shrug, “You want to flip for it?”

Spurius did not look surprised at all, which I took to mean that he had been thinking the same thing.

“Might as well,” he agreed, whereupon we both started fumbling for our respective coin purses.

I was the first one to produce one, but when I pulled it out, it was one of those issued by Marcus Antonius that had his face on one side, and Cleopatra’s on the other. Although I had not yet run into the trouble with the Egyptian queen that would turn me against her forever, Spurius was not shy.

“I’m not flipping a coin with that bitch on it,” he declared, and began rummaging in his own purse again.

I realized that made sense; Spurius was one of Antonius’ men through and through, and although I questioned his judgment of character, I respected him because he made no secret of that fact, much the same way I had been with Caesar. And if men like me who did not feel that warmly towards Antonius had ambivalence towards Cleopatra for her perceived emasculation of the Triumvir of the East, I could only imagine how much Spurius hated her. Finally, he withdrew a coin that was acceptable, having Antonius on one side and Pietas on the other holding a turibulum in one hand and a cornucopia in the other.

“That will work,” I assured him.

“And since it’s my coin, I call it,” he said immediately, and I had a suspicion that his objection to Cleopatra had been more about that than any feelings towards the queen.

Despite feeling I had been tricked, I could also feel the eyes of the officers on us, so I waved a hand at him in irritated acceptance.

“And I bet you’re calling heads, aren’t you?” I asked sourly.

His only response was a grin, just before he tossed the coin in the air. I watched it tumbling over and over in the sky, winking in the sunlight as I was struck by the fact that this was quite a ridiculous way to settle such an important matter. Nevertheless, I had agreed to it, and I watched as the coin landed on the ground, but instead of hitting the dusty ground, it bounced off a rock, which made it flip over from how it was originally going to land. We both stared down at it for a moment.

“Fuck me.”

I honestly do not know whether it was Spurius or me who uttered this, but in fact either way the coin landed was going to pose as much of a problem for both winner and loser, albeit in different ways.


Walking back towards the command group, we had not even reached them before Herod burst out, “Well? Which Legion is going to carry out the assault on this nuisance and reap the rewards?”

I cannot say that if he had not uttered these words I would not have had the same reaction, but it did not help, and I felt the coiling knot of my anger tighten as I touched Spurius on the arm in a silent signal, counting on him to follow my lead.

“Actually, King Herod,” I knew he liked being called Highness, but there was nothing he could fault about me referring to him by his official title, although I was rewarded with him stiffening in the saddle. “Primus Pilus and I discussed it, and we were wondering; why aren’t your men taking this fortress? Shouldn’t they be the ones climbing those ladders?”

I do not believe I could have had a stronger effect on Herod than if I had punched him in the genitals.

“Because my men are not…trained to storm positions that strong,” he finally managed.

I was sure that their training was not the first thing that came to Herod’s mind, and knowing him enough to have gotten an idea of how his mind worked, I was also sure that it had more to do with sparing his men so that they could be around to do his bidding and enforce his will, after Rome won his country for him. However, as much as it pained me to admit it, he was speaking the truth, something that of all the Romans there I perhaps knew better than anyone else. After all, I had been the de facto Primus Pilus of the 6th Legion when Caesar had been besieged in Alexandria for close to a year, and when we finally broke out, it was with the help of a contingent of five thousand Jewish soldiers. They had been present at the final battle along the Nile where the boy king Ptolemy’s army had been overwhelmed, and he had drowned. While I could not fault their bravery; they are, in truth, fierce fighters, they are also completely lacking in the kind of discipline and unschooled in the kind of teamwork that taking such a strong position as this fortress would require. At least, if one wanted to take it and have an army left. It was true they had assaulted the heavily fortified camp right alongside my men of the 6rh, throwing their ladders against the walls. But not only had those been made of turf, and was built on relatively level ground, I had witnessed firsthand how they had actually made their job harder than it had to be.

Regardless of this, I was not disposed to let Herod off the hook that easily, and I pressed, “What does your field commander say to that?” I looked over at Joseph, and I admit I felt a bit badly about pulling him into the midst of this.

And he looked about as happy as I felt at being put in such a position; no leader of fighting men wants to admit that those he leads are deficient in any way, but after a tense moment of silence, Joseph finally shook his head.

“I am afraid that His Highness is speaking the truth, Pullus. My men are willing to fight, and I know they would throw themselves at those walls without hesitating, but there are not many of them left who were in Egypt and assaulted that fort. And,” he added, shooting a glance that I thought bore some reproach in it at Herod, “we have not had the opportunity to train for such things as this.”

Sighing, I finally gave in, waving a hand at Joseph as I thanked him for his honesty.

Turning to Sosius, I rendered a salute and used my professional tone when I told him, “General, the 10th is ready to carry out the orders to assault this fortress.”

Sosius glanced over at Spurius, who did not say anything but gave a slight nod in agreement that, in fact, it would be my Legion that would be assailing this pile of rocks.

Turning back to me, he asked, “Do you have any thoughts on how to go about it, Pullus?”

“The only way that we can,” I replied grimly. “Across that open ground on the opposite side from the ravine.”

“And how do you propose to get there?” Herod asked, and it was a fair question.”

“We’re going to have to climb that ridge. At least,” I said, “that’s the only way I can think of doing it, unless anyone else has a better suggestion.”

There was a silence, telling me that in fact, there was not; or they were as unable as I was to think of one.

It took so long for us to get into position, maneuvering over the extremely rough terrain, approaching from the northwest, that the sun was no more than a hand’s width above the horizon by the time we got where we needed to be. Using one of the dry watercourses, we marched in a southeasterly direction until we were at a point where only a low hill was between us and the fortress. I say it was low, and it was, but it was also steep. But as arduous as the initial approach had been, once we crested that hill it was going to be even worse, because although we had a slight advantage in height, with the walls of the fort probably about fifty feet lower than the crest of the hill, there was an expanse of more than two hundred paces between crest and wall that was completely denuded of any cover. From what I could see, if there had been vegetation on these hills, it had long since been grazed away, if in fact Jericho was as old as Joseph had told me that it was. Or perhaps these hills have never had any kind of growth on them; all I cared about was that moment, and there was not even a blade of grass to provide any kind of protection for my men. The size of the fortress also was something of a problem, simply because the walls were perhaps two hundred paces by one hundred, and while we would be assaulting one of the long sides, it meant that I could not bring my entire Legion to bear. In reality, it was going to be a job for no more than four Cohorts, but while there was no question about the First being involved, I decided to spare the Third and Fourth, but not the Second. The truth is that I wanted the Second involved for selfish reasons; in an assault like this I wanted Scribonius at my side. However, it also meant that Gaius would be involved as well, and I thought long and hard about making him my runner, or finding some other way to keep him from danger. It was with great reluctance that I decided that I could not do such; besides, if he was going to share in the spoils from Jericho, he would have to be one of those assaulting the walls, at least if he wanted a larger share. I had decided that while the 10th would in fact share in the spoils from Jericho, whatever they may have been, it was not fair to give equal portions to each Cohort, even if they had not participated in taking the fortress. That was also a factor in my thinking about which Cohorts would participate, so I decided that the best compromise was to take one Cohort from each of the second and third lines. Consequently, I chose the Sixth, and the Ninth Cohorts, led by Servius Gellius and Marcus Glaxus respectively. I had thought about using the Eighth, since that was led by Cyclops, but having Scribonius with me meant that including Cyclops would cause some questions. These were the Cohorts leading the way up the watercourse, and we stopped briefly, but I was worried about the daylight, not wanting to waste any of it. Until, that is, Scribonius came to talk to me while the men rested.

“Why are you in such a hurry?” he asked me, in his usual way that told me he was asking for a reason.

Rather than go through a lengthy back and forth, I simply asked him, “What do you have in mind, Sextus?”

His face showed surprise that I had not behaved in my usual manner, but otherwise he did not hesitate, saying, “If we have to cross all this open ground, why are we doing it in daylight?”

I opened my mouth to argue, but fortunately before any words came out my mind caught up with my erstwhile friend. It was true that under normal circumstances, trying to perform a night assault on a position that had not been thoroughly scouted was not something that recommended itself, at least not without a thorough scouting job of the entire position. Although I could see what had been the far side of this position, and was now the ground we were about to cross, from a distance, I could plainly see that it was bare rock. I supposed it was possible that there were some sort of traps, but I did not think it very likely. Additionally, I remembered that it was not quite a full moon, but was close to it, and with the light-colored rock, whatever light there was reflected even more brightly than normal. Of course, this worked both ways; if the moonlight was strengthened by virtue of the rocky ground that meant we as targets would be visible. Nevertheless, I also knew that there is more to judging distance than just having enough light; there is some quality in the light of the moon that makes it very tricky. All this and more flashed through my mind in the time it took me to consider what Scribonius had said.

“You’re right,” I told him with a grin. “We’re going to wait.”


It was perhaps a third of a watch after the sun had completely set before I gave the order to the Pili Priores to rouse the men. Mostly I wanted the eyes of the men fully adjusted, and for the moon to rise a bit before we began. Because of our proximity, I had ordered the corniceni to remain silent, so the Pili Priores sent runners to their respective Centuries, passing the word. Like specters from the ground, as I looked down the wash the men rose from where they had been sitting or lying down, catching up on their sleep, and I was proud at how quietly they moved. Needless to say it is impossible for almost two thousand men not to make any noise at all, but I knew from experience that the sound would not carry up and over the hill to reach the ears of the enemy. I seriously doubted they were unaware of our presence; even as rocky as the footing was, there was still a fair amount of dust raised on our march into position. Before we began ascending the slope up from the wash, I walked down my Cohort, making sure that the men carrying the ladders knew what they were supposed to do, and exchanging a quiet word with the older men like Vellusius. We would essentially be in a line of Cohorts, climbing the slope side by side so that when we crested it, we would already be in position to move into testudo as smoothly as possible. Hopefully we would not have to get into the protective formation until we were very close to the walls; there is nothing quite as tiring as marching in testudo because it is taxing to both the legs and the arm holding the shield. My own runner returned, panting that the rest of the Cohorts were ready, then I had Valerius, my aquilifer raise the eagle on high, counting on the moonbeams to catch the gilt silver of the eagle enough so that each Century in turn could see. Giving the verbal command, my Century began the march up the slope, and this was one time that I did not mind that our ascent started in such a ragged fashion, as each Centurion counted on the Century to his right to signal that it was time to move. We climbed the slope fairly quickly, but I could tell that it was steeper than any of us thought just by the harsh panting of the men, which thankfully drowned out the sound of my own. Just below the crest I called the halt, more quietly this time, although the men came to a stop smoothly, mainly because they were expecting it. I waited a moment for the entire line to come to a halt before, taking a deep breath, I had Valerius repeat his signal with the eagle. Then, up and over the crest we marched.


Despite it being my most fervent hope, I must say I was extremely surprised that we had gone down the slope more than a hundred paces before there was a cry of alarm from the walls. Every step we took without being under fire was a victory of sorts, but once we were detected, I will say that there was very little time to savor the idea we had essentially sneaked up on the fortress before I heard the sound I had been dreading.

“Slingers!” I bellowed, the need for quiet gone, following it with, “Form testudo!”

Immediately men began the movements they practice over and over, not just in winter, but whenever we have time that is not filled with other activities. And I will say that as much as every Legion trained for the testudo, the men of the 10th roundly hated me because if the other Legions did it ten times, I demanded that they do it twenty. But now it paid off, and if I had not been more concerned with not taking a sling bullet in the face I would have taken a moment to savor how smoothly not just the men of my Century, but the entire Cohort suddenly contracted, becoming a solid wall of shields. However, I did congratulate myself for thinking to draw a shield in preparation for what was happening now, as the air filled with what the uninitiated would swear was a swarm of angry bees buzzing past their heads. Although I was happy that we had gotten into testudo, and that I had my own shield, the news was not all good; I could tell not just by the sound the missiles made as they slashed through the air but by the sound the ones that hit something made that they were indeed the lead bullets I had worried about. Fortunately, at least for the first several paces, the racket that assailed our ears was that of the heavy metal striking the wood of our shields, but this was not bound to last. I estimate that we were perhaps fifty paces from the wall when I heard the first shrill scream, coming not from my Century but from farther down in the Second.

“I told you dozy bastards to keep your shields up!” I heard the roar of a familiar voice, recognizing Balbus, confirming my guess that it had been the Second who suffered the first casualty. “And if any more of you drop your shield so much as an inch, by the gods I’ll flay you myself! You won’t have to worry about a fucking piddling slinger!”

It may seem strange, but I assure you that men can laugh at moments like this, and I heard several of the men of my Century chuckle at my Pilus Posterior.

“I’m glad you think it’s funny,” I snapped. “What do you think Im going to do if you let the Second show us up, eh?”

Nobody laughed, but I heard some mumbling, which I chose to ignore. At that moment my left arm shuddered from the impact of a lead missile smashing into my shield, issuing a slightly higher-pitched cracking sound when compared to stone sling bullets. Almost immediately after that, another one slammed into my shield, this one on the opposite side of the boss and lower down. It was probably at the same instant that there was the distinct whirring sound and puff of air on my right cheek, all of this informing me that I had now become the target. This is not unusual; just because it is not, that makes it no less disconcerting, and while I continued forward I began angling closer to the Century seeking the extra cover provided by their shields. I must say that the silvery light of the moon gave the whole event an otherworldly quality, where shadows were so much more distinct and a deeper black than they are in sunlight. In practical terms it meant that it was tricky judging just how close we were to the walls and how much more we had to endure, but out of the corner of my eye, when I looked over the upraised shields of the First, I could now actually make out the motion of the slingers’ arms as they whirled about rapidly just before they released them. By this point I had heard several shouts, screams and a few curses of a quality that I knew meant men had been hit by a missile, but there was nothing that could be done about it except get to the wall and raise the ladders. Within each testudo men carried two ladders, each man of the file assigned that task holding onto their portion of it.

“Ladder men, make ready!” I shouted, the racket of sling bullets hitting shields or bouncing off the metal bosses and rocks such that I had to use most of my vocal power. “Rear two ranks, ready javelins!”

This was how we would be able to raise the ladders without having scorpions forcing the defenders to keep their heads down; any enemy warrior willing to lean out and over the wall to try and fling his own javelin or spear down into our midst would be getting the same weapon in the face, while the slingers were now helpless because you cannot loose a sling straight down. In preparation for this, I had the men carrying the ladders pass their javelins to the men of the two rear ranks. It meant that those men were carrying at least four, which is awkward, especially in testudo, but it was for a good reason; bearing the responsibility for the lives of your friends and comrades tends to quell even the most vociferous of complainers. The shouted commands of both Roman and foe were doing their own type of battle, as the commanders in the fortress shouted out in the Jewish tongue, which I believe is called Aramaic, their own instructions to repel us. It seemed to take longer than it should have, which told me that I had in fact misjudged the distance because of the moonlight, but I finally reached the base of the wall, followed instantly by my men. Without any orders from either me or my Optio Mallius, my Century broke out of the testudo, with the two rearmost ranks quickly dropping their shields from above their heads to show their right arms already pulled back, ready to hurl their missiles at any target presented itself. Because of my position immediately underneath the wall, it was easier for me to see that there was in fact a handful of Antigonus’ men brave or foolish enough to try to stop what was happening by observing my own men. The arms of an even half-dozen of them swept forward, their javelins streaking upward so quickly I could not have turned my head to follow their flight if I wanted. We were rewarded by the muffled screams of at least two men, but that was all the time I could spend on this aspect of the assault, already moving between the files of my Century, made more difficult because they were still in close order from the testudo, to take my place at the base of the ladder. As I did so I spotted Vellusius; in this second enlistment of the 10th he was now a member of the fifth section instead of the last, where we had been tiros together.

“Vellusius! There’s nobody I want sniffing my ass more than you! You’re going to follow me up the ladder!”

As I had hoped there were some sniggering at this, and even in the dim light I saw Vellusius grin back at me. While I had made something of a joke about it, the truth was that there was nobody I trusted more of the rankers to protect my back than Vellusius, and I suspect he knew that.

The men designated to raise the ladder began doing so, and even with several of them they grunted with the strain; siege ladders are by necessity very heavy, both to support several men but also to make it difficult for an enemy to push them off the wall. I knew from experience that with my bulk it would be next to impossible, but there is also security in numbers, not to mention the matter of timing it so that almost the instant the top of the ladder touches the wall whoever is going up first is already on the first rung and climbing, which is what I did now.

“Follow me boys! The only way you get the loot and women in the town is to kill these bastards!” I shouted, and was rewarded by an answering roar of my men behind me.

Glancing over, I saw that the ladder that Mallius was going to climb was only then about halfway raised, and I cursed my eagerness; another useful lesson I had learned from experience was that coordinating the raising of the ladders was important as well, because it is distracting for an enemy lining a wall to see more than one Roman’s head popping up. I hesitated, debating for a moment about pausing on my climb to allow Mallius and his group to catch up, but if there is one thing that can be said about me, it is that patience is not my strong suit. Once I commit to a course of action, I do not like stopping for any reason until it is done, and whether that is sharpening my blade or climbing a ladder to take a fortress makes no difference. Therefore, I resumed my upward climb, only vaguely aware that several more javelins came whistling by just over my head to scour the parapet of men who were even then preparing to meet me.


Nearing the top of the parapet, I paused only to draw my sword, cursing as I always did at the awkwardness of fumbling with both shield and sword, while at the same time trying to peek around the edge of the shield to see what awaited me and not lose my balance on the ladder. By this point in my career, I imagine that I had been first up a ladder an even dozen times, and just climbed a ladder more than twice that number of times. Yet, every single time I did it I distinctly remember thinking essentially the same thing; there has to be a better way to scale a ladder while armed. However, if there is, I have never heard of it, and in many ways this time was no different than the first time I had done so all those years before in Hispania. Except for the fact that I never forgot to draw my sword like I had that first time, and in fact was why I had gotten into the habit of pausing to do so just before I reached the rung that put me within striking distance of my enemies above. With my sword drawn, I stepped up one more rung, and immediately there was a tremendous blow to my shield, and while it was powerful what made it even more of a problem was the angle of the strike. I do not know if it was intended, but whatever weapon was used struck close to the left-hand edge of my shield, which twisted it so violently in my hand I almost lost my hold on it. But in turning in that direction, I got a quick glimpse of what was immediately above me and well within arm’s reach, and even as I pulled my shield back into position I leaned against the ladder so that I could give a short but very hard upward thrust. My reward was the sudden jolt when the point of my Gallic-forged blade met resistance, in the form of a man’s face, and punched through it, followed in close succession by a muffled scream, and what seemed like a sudden cloudburst that drenched my hand and forearm. As red as blood is in the light of day, even with an almost full moon it looks black; in fact, as I think about it, I realize now that it is almost impossible to determine colors of any kind at night. Things are either black, or they are white or whitish-silver, and now my arm was covered in what could have been black ink, except for the warmth. Best of all there was now a gap directly above me on the parapet, and I did not hesitate, crouching slightly before pushing off with both legs to essentially jump up and over the parapet. I have tried to envision what it must look like from a foe’s perspective, but the best I can come up with is the image where one instant I am not there, the next I am. And when I, and my fellow Romans, come, we bring only defeat and death. Such was the case this night; my feet had barely settled on the parapet, landing with one foot immediately against the body of the man I had just made a corpse while my blade was snaking out, seeking the nearest target, a heavily bearded Jew wearing a coat covered in metal ringlets and armed with a spear and shield. As is common with the warriors in this part of the world, his shield was made of wicker, which is surprisingly strong and makes a good defensive weapon. Conversely, because of its light weight it is almost useless for any kind of offensive maneuvers, meaning that I only had to worry about the man’s spear. My first thrust he managed to block, and for an instant the point of my blade caught in the wicker, but instead of taking advantage of my temporary disability he seemed to be as concerned with recovering his shield as I was extracting my sword. But as he quickly learned to his demise, my shield was a devastating offensive weapon in its own right, as I twisted my body with as much force as I could muster, flexing my hips as I essentially threw a punch with my left hand. The fact that there was a heavy wooden shield with a large iron boss on it, added to my own weight and strength, meant that his feeble attempt to parry my blow with his spear barely slowed it down. My iron boss slammed into the side of his head with terrific force, and I not only felt his skull crushed beneath the blow, but his helmet flew off his head, tumbling high in the air out over where my men were waiting below. Although I do not know because I did not stop to admire my work, I think the Jew was still standing upright by the time I had pivoted completely around to my left in order to present my shield to what had been my rear less than a heartbeat before, taking another heavy blow to it. This one came from a warrior who had been just to the left of the ladder, stopped momentarily because he had to step over the first body; in fact it is entirely possible that my first kill had been a friend or even a relative, and he had paused to check to see if there was any life left in him. If that was indeed the case, it cost him his own life because it gave me just enough time to turn and face him squarely and absorb the first of his thrusts. Like the man I had just dispatched, he was armed with a spear and shield, but even in the dimmer light I could see he was very young. In the back of my mind, the detached observer noticed this and commented that this might be his first battle, always the hardest to survive. It is impossible to say, but I suspect that this was behind what happened next, because instead of answering his thrust with one of my own, I again used my shield, albeit in a slightly different manner. His thrust had been low, landing below the boss, which pushed the bottom of the shield inward a bit; more accurately, I did not exert my strength to keep my shield perfectly vertical in the way we are trained. As he withdrew his spear, I essentially followed behind it with my left arm, but using the metal rim instead of the boss, I shoved my shield directly into his face, the top of it striking him in the middle of his nose because of its outward tilt. Once more I was showered in blood, and proving that if this was not his first battle it was close to it, all thoughts of defending himself, let alone continuing to try and kill me obviously fled from his mind, because he dropped his spear and shield to clutch his face, screaming shrilly. Now I used my sword, or at least the flat of it, swinging it in a backhand manner to slam into him and send him flying off the parapet, and I was vaguely aware that after his body slammed into the ground, his screams continued, so he was not dead. Titus, you’re getting soft, I remember thinking. But the result was the same; I had now cleared enough space on the parapet, and I could sense someone joining me, and it made me feel better knowing it was Vellusius.


With one of my longest and most experienced comrades at my back, I gave no more thought to the space to the left of my ladder, concentrating instead on clearing the parapet to my right. Although it was true that this fortress, springing up as it did seemingly overnight, was in fact something of a marvel, it still suffered from the hasty nature of its construction. One way that was most apparent was in the width of the parapet, because although it was more than wide enough for one man to stand with his hip against the wall and have perhaps two feet of space to his left, that was all. This was more than wide enough for one man, but not quite wide enough for two men to stand side by side; the best that a man could do was to stand behind and to the side of a comrade and jab his weapon over the man’s shoulder, and that gave an attacker a bit more maneuvering room. There was no way that they could lock shields, and in the handful of heartbeats I had as I faced back to my right I saw this. Without hesitating more than that, I feinted as if I was going to use my shield offensively, but coming from even farther from the left than normal, as if my target was the man with the spear just behind the leading warrior. I also tilted my shield again, but this time at an even greater angle, rotating my wrist downward to its fullest extent, trying to convince the pair that I was trying to use the top edge of my shield to break the second man’s nose. As I hoped, the leading Jew moved his shield even farther across his body than normal in an attempt to block my feint, the instinctive move of a warrior trying to protect a comrade who is in a weaker position. In doing so he brought on his own death, the point of my blade shooting into the gap just between the left edge of his shield and his arm. Because I was in a somewhat awkward position, with my left arm still partially extended and the shield in an unusual posture, I was unable to use the force of my body by twisting my hips. Nevertheless, I possessed enough strength in my arm so that there was only a fraction of an eyeblink’s worth of resistance as my point struck the scales of his armor before pushing through, then sliding between his ribs and into his chest. However, rather than withdrawing my blade, I instead pushed even harder, ignoring the gurgling scream that communicated an unbearable agony, and in doing so moved the bulk of his body backward into his companion. Using my sword as a grisly handle, now I was able to use the leverage created by the greater bulk of my body, steering the mortally wounded warrior with enough force that his own weight forced the man at his shoulder to stumble backward. This was not enough; instead of withdrawing my blade, I continued shoving my victim backward, thankful that his cries had almost stopped, his eyes rolling back in his head and his mouth hanging open as blood issued from it in great, frothy gouts. Despite his best attempt to do so, I gave the second enemy no chance to recover his footing, and he kept stumbling backward, until he fell against the men behind him. In the space of perhaps three or four heartbeats, I had managed to kill one man and temporarily incapacitate two others by pressing them together with sufficient pressure that they could not bring their weapons to bear on me. However, that was where the advantage ended; now I had to withdraw my sword, but even as I began doing so I felt a hand suddenly grab hold of my harness, bracing me from behind. Bolstered by this extra support, I managed to withdraw my blade, allowing the dead man to collapse at my feet. Instead of recovering back into the first position, I launched another immediate attack, although this was less of a feint and more of a probing attack. Aiming for the face of the warrior who had been just behind the one I had just dispatched, the point of my blade punched at him, and as I hoped he recoiled, not just from the idea of a sword being thrust into his face but from the spattering of blood and gore that still coated my blade, courtesy of the man that I assumed had been a friend up until a moment before. In doing so, he leaned backward and over to his right, away from my sword but directly into the path of my shield, and I did not hesitate. Thrusting my arm forward, the boss caught him in the forehead, and I did not even have to follow up with a thrust from my sword as he took one stumbling step to his right, then disappeared off the parapet. I was only vaguely aware of the sound of his body crashing into the ground, but unlike the youth I had struck, there was no sound. The third Jew had just managed to recover his balance, but events had happened so quickly that I could see, if not by his face but by the way his body moved that he was still dazed from the sudden onslaught of movement and fury that is a key to success in taking a position like this one. Consequently it did not take me more than one single thrust to end his life, and once he was dispatched, I pressed forward, intent on creating space on the parapet. That is the key to taking a fortified position, feeding as many men as quickly as possible into a breach in order to overwhelm the defenders, and in this we were successful.


Unfortunately, clearing the parapet was not enough in this case. What I discovered by the light of the moon was that, whoever it was that designed this fortress had not as much neglected to make the parapet wide enough for two men as he made a choice. That choice was to use his time and materials on creating a second set of inner defenses in the form of a squat, fortified building, completely made of stone, in the middle of the fortress. From what I could see, if there were timbers used for the roof, they were covered by slabs of stone, making it impossible to fire, while incised into the walls at regular intervals were slits that were slightly larger than those used by archers, in order to accommodate slingers. It was roughly square in construction, and of a size that would house perhaps three hundred men, if every slit, each of which was wide enough for two men with a man behind each one. It would be cramped surely enough, but this was a building not made for comfort but to be a last bastion of defense. What I did not know was how many Jews had made it into the building, but unfortunately there was only one way to find out. The only consolation, at least at that moment was that whoever was in the building was content to hold their fire. I hoped that meant their supply of sling bullets was running low, but it was more likely that they were just waiting for us to descend onto the floor of the fortress. Because of our position up on the parapet, the angle was such that, while not impossible, it was a difficult shot for a slinger to make. As the last of the defenders who had chosen to stay behind on the parapet to give their comrades the time to make it to the parlous safety of the building, I sent runners to the other Centuries ordering a butcher’s bill. Honestly, it also gave me an opportunity to catch my breath; I had not exerted myself in this manner for some time, and no matter how much one trains, or how fit one is from marching, actual combat is another matter entirely. Besides, I reminded myself sourly, you’re old. That is when I became aware of someone standing next to me, and I turned to see Vellusius, and I must say that I was happy to see that he was breathing as hard as I was, perhaps even more so. Of course, he was also older than I was, but it still made me feel somewhat better.

“So?” I asked him, pointing down to the blockhouse. “Any suggestions about how to get those bastards out of there?”

Normally I did not solicit opinions from rankers, but Vellusius was a special case. Despite the fact he was still a Gregarius by rank, and he had no special skill; at least if one did not consider fighting to be a special skill, I trusted his judgment as much as my Centurions and Optios, with the exception of Scribonius, Balbus and a couple others. In fact, he was paid as an Immune, despite not having one of the skills that are traditionally required for that status. But I regarded, and still do, the ability to survive the kind of fighting the 10th had seen to that point as perhaps the greatest skill a man could possess, and I accordingly had “promoted” him, one of my original tent section from years before, to the grade of pay that an Immunes commands. Now, I will admit that there were other men who would have been qualified for the pay using that criteria, but I also acknowledge that I was rewarding Vellusius because of who he was as much as for his abilities in battle. Staring down at the building, he spoke slowly, which was not unusual, as his mind was not the swiftest under the best of circumstances.

“I would have said to fire it, but they covered the timbers of the roof with stone,” he began, and I bit back the sharp retort that came to mind about pointing out the obvious, knowing that if I was patient, I would hear something useful.

At least, so I hoped, but finally he shrugged helplessly and said, “From what I can see Primus Pilus, there’s only one way. We go through that door.” He pointed to the single, almost square door that sat in the middle of one side of the structure. “It’s too dark to tell, but I’m betting that door is nothing to sneeze at. It’s likely to be several inches thick and iron-banded to boot.”

Stifling a curse, I forced myself to thank Vellusius for confirming my fears. He had seen the same thing I had, and come to the same conclusion, that we would have to batter our way into the building.

Sighing, I clapped him on the back and said, “Well, let’s not waste any more time. The only way to the loot in Jericho is through that door.”


Working as quickly as possible, we fashioned a ram, using one of the large wooden supports that held up a roof used as shelter for the garrison. This was made more difficult because, now that we were on the floor of the fortress, we were in range of the slingers, meaning that I had to order a makeshift testudo, men forming a solid wall of shields consisting of two levels, one shield stacked on another. Although it offered protection as the men using the axes quickly chopped down the stoutest column, the racket of the lead missiles slamming into the shields made nothing but shouting possible. Finally, the post was down, the two men designated for the task leaping away as the corner of the roof came crashing down. There was a slight delay brought on by the need to muscle the part of the roof out of the way to drag out the downed column, then using their axes, the pair of rankers quickly carved notches that would hold the ropes the men on the ram would use as handles. Using my Century, we formed up in testudo, but instead of ladders, only the ram was carried forward, and this time I did not hesitate to integrate myself into the formation. I had no desire to take my chances with just my single shield for protection, seeking instead the protection of the rest of my Century. The only blessing was that, because of the door and how much space it took along one wall, there were only two slits for slingers on that wall, while at the beginning of our approach, because of the angle we were coming from one slit on the contiguous wall could loose their missiles at us, and that was only until we reached a point where the angle was too great. My biggest worry was that whoever was commanding inside would pull all his slingers from the other firing slits to work in relays at the two on either side of the door, so to forestall that, I had the other Cohorts surround the building on the other three sides, and make a demonstration that let the enemy know that if they stripped those slits, my men would rush forward to fling their javelins into the buildings. I would only know if this worked when we began our approach by the number of sling bullets coming our way. Knowing that there was nothing to be gained by waiting, I gave the order, the shields of the men moving smoothly into position as I stepped into the spot on the front right. Naturally this created some shuffling, but it did not take long.

“All right boys!” I bellowed, forgetting that because of the shields and the wall they formed, there was no need to yell, and even I winced at myself, my ears ringing. “Let’s get this done! Forward…march!”

Again, my Century moved as one, starting the approach without the jerking kind of start that is a symptom of inexperienced or poorly trained Legionaries. It was at moments like this, small and at seemingly incongruent times like this where I was the proudest of not just the men, but myself, and I always allowed myself a moment of satisfaction before returning my attention back to the task at hand. We had gone less than a half-dozen paces before the first missile slammed into a shield; mine as it happened, and it bucked in my hand as if in protest at being struck. Within a heartbeat the spattering of missiles striking shields made the sound I had produced yelling our orders to seem inconsequential as the racket became almost unbearable. The best way I can describe it is to tell you to place yourself in a wooden box, then have your friends bang away on the walls of the box with metal mallets. In many ways it sounded like we had been caught in a hailstorm, but any of us who were struck would be more than stung by pellets made of lead and not ice. Because of my posture, I could not risk taking a peek to see if the other Cohorts had been presented with an opportunity, but my guess was that, as bad as it was in that moment, it would have been much worse if the enemy commander had pulled every slinger to the two slits that were now all that was within range of us. Although the fire was mostly continuous, telling me that the Jews inside were in fact working in shifts, each man rotating through to fling a missile then step aside to reload, the volume of it was not what would be expected if there were more than a couple of slingers loosing at any given moment. Nevertheless, it was enough that any lapse on our part meant that one of my men got hurt, and I suppose it was inevitable that, from behind me somewhere in the middle of the formation I heard an anguished shout.

That was bad enough, but suddenly there was a shuddering in the movement behind me, and someone shouted, “It’s Glabius! He’s down!”

“Halt!” I roared immediately.

I was extraordinarily thankful that we managed to do so without it opening up a gap in the shields more than what had caused Glabius to be hit, but as much as the casualty itself it was the identity that made this the only decision I could make. Normally we do not stop when a man falls from the testudo, hoping only that he is not injured so badly that he cannot pull himself under his shield, since a lone man lying in the wake of a marching testudo makes for a tempting target. However, Glabius was one of the men carrying the ram, and he had to be replaced before moving forward, and I heard Mallius give the necessary commands, shifting men about, still under the shelter of their comrades’ upraised shields, while the front of our testudo was lashed by lead shot. My shield in particular was jerking about as if it had a mind of its own, and it was only because of the darkness that I could not see the light streaming through the handful of small puncture holes where the jagged edge of the lead shot had punched through the wood of my shield. It was at times like these that I did not particularly care for being as large as I am, but as much punishment as my shield took, the stiff horsehair of my transverse crest was ripped to shreds. The impact from the shot aimed at my head, where only my crest was showing, meant that I felt as if an invisible giant had grasped my head and was making it move back and forth whenever a missile caught at the crest. Later it would be a great source of amusement; as Scribonius gleefully pointed out, I looked like a bedraggled peacock, but in that moment I was more concerned with making sure it was just my crest that was damaged and not my head. While it seemed much longer, I knew it was just a matter of heartbeats before I heard Mallius call to me, informing me that we could move forward again, and we resumed our march. The door was now less than twenty paces away, which meant that the impact of the missiles was at its most potent, and I suppose it was inevitable that one of the men in the front rank suffered the failure of his shield. It was signaled by a splintering, cracking sound first, and even in the moonlight the Jewish slingers saw it and without any command that I heard, focused their fire on the doomed Legionary whose shield had finally given way. Since it was to my immediate left, albeit three men down, I could not see but I clearly heard the wet, sodden thudding of at least three lead missiles slamming into the man’s body. Although I could not see, I knew just by the sound that it was the third or fourth man of the front rank, meaning I had just lost one of my best fighters, either a man named Maxentius, or Poplicola. Neither was a loss that I could afford, but my hope that whoever it was had suffered just a wound was dashed when I heard the low, gurgling moan that I knew from bitter experience meant his lung was punctured. Even so, the man of the second rank had quickly shifted his posture from holding his shield above his head to his front as he stepped into the front rank, leaving his dying comrade at his feet. Adding to what was a tragedy for my Century was the fact that now the men behind the fallen Legionary had to watch their step, while maintaining their shields in their proper position. Now within ten paces, ironically the front of the testudo was the safest place to be, the angle being such that the only way the slingers could still lash us with their missiles was by leaning out of the slit and exposing themselves. Consequently, the noise of the barrage subsided as the enemy shifted its focus onto first the rear of my Century, then the Second who was following closely behind. While they were doing this, we reached the door, and just as Vellusius had predicted, I could see that battering it down was not going to be an easy proposition. Unfortunately, we had no other option but to batter down this door.


In moments such as these it is extremely difficult to determine how much time passes, but my estimate is that it took a sixth part of a watch of slow but steady pounding against the door before, with a resounding cracking, splintering sound, it finally gave way. Because it was a single door, it meant that we had to wrench it loose from the hinges and break the blocking bar, but we were only partially successful in this as, at last, the bar splintered and the door sagged inward, still attached by one hinge. Immediately the cracking sound of the door giving way was replaced by the buzzing song of lead missiles, but we were prepared, the men with the ram protected by their comrades’ shields. I was standing just to the right of the now open doorway, but was forced to press my back against the stone wall of the blockhouse in order to avoid first the slings, then a small salvo of javelins. I heard at least one of my men shriek in agony, but most of the enemy missiles were blocked. A bigger problem, at least from our point of view, was that the commander inside had ordered all light sources to be doused, so that the only light was coming in through the slits and the now-open door. In short, it was as close to pitch-black as it was possible for it to be, and although it meant that his men would inevitably stab a friend in the dark, it nevertheless made our task much more difficult. I bitterly saluted the cunning and ruthlessness of whoever it was in command, but I realized that our options were severely limited. In theory we could wait until daylight, but if we did so there was no way that the fact we had taken the fortress could be hidden any longer, meaning that it was likely that not only would the troops of Antigonus bottled up in Jericho be prepared for our coming, they might very well sally forth and fall on us as we continued fighting. True, the 3rd and the rest of the 10th was in position to block such a move, but I could not discount that, given the many folds and dips in the terrain, Antigonus’ men who were familiar with the ground knew of a way to slip past Spurius and my men. It was not extremely likely that this would happen, but I had not lived as long as I had by that point ignoring possibilities, no matter how unlikely. This was what prompted my decision to not delay, but I could not in good conscience order my men to go into that darkness without me leading the way; this is what it means to be a leader. Speaking honestly, this was one of those moments when command was truly a burden, because while I did not like the darkness overmuch, I truly could not, and cannot stand enclosed spaces, and dark, enclosed spaces are at the top of my list. And that was not even when the dark enclosed space was full of men intent on killing me. Nevertheless, this was the path for myself that I had chosen, so there was no point in delaying any longer. Hefting my shield, I shouted something, but it was not memorable enough that I remember it now, then with it hard against my body and my sword low in the first position, I charged into the darkness. Just inside the doorway I could barely make out the bulk of what I thought were two men standing side by side, their own wicker shields up in front of them, and I sensed more than saw the dull silvery-gray flash that made me bring my shield up in time to block the thrust from a spear wielded by one of the two men. It was too dark to tell which one did so, and in the instant it happened I recognized that this fight would be one where I had to stop thinking, to let my body react to every threat. And even then it might not be enough. Before whichever Jew made the thrust could recover, I made a thrust of my own, aiming for a spot where I hoped there would be a gap between his outthrust arm and his shield. Relying on the countless times I had performed this counter move when I could see what I was doing, I was rewarded by the sudden jolt up my arm as the tip of my sword struck his body. He let out an explosive gasp, telling me that I had probably punched him hard just underneath his breastbone, since this is the most likely way to knock the wind from a man. Accompanying the sound was the sensation of something falling away but I barely noticed as the other man, with a roar that made my ears ring, plunged his sword at me. At least I assume it was a sword from the long scar it made on my shield when I blocked his attempt to gut me, and I responded with a thrust of my own. Instead of the sound of a solid strike, I heard a crackling sound that told me he had managed to block my sword with his wicker shield. Instantly I lashed out with my shield, more or less aiming for where I thought his head was, but although I was close, it was not a clean blow; I think I hit him in the shoulder. Regardless, it was enough to cause him to cry out in pain, and once more I had the sensation of movement, except instead of him disappearing completely from view, his bulk just grew dimmer as he staggered back a step. Shuffling forward, I slid my left foot along the dirt floor of the blockhouse, and as I did I felt a hand grab the back of my harness, while someone grazed my hip as he moved beside me. Reassured that I was not completely alone, I tried to concentrate on the fight, but it was hard to do so because of the noise of what sounded like at least a hundred voices, packed inside the blockhouse, all of them baying for Roman blood. It was the most confused and confusing fight I had been in to that point, one composed of shadows and shapes, and I found myself just lunging, recovering, and essentially going through my forms, as if I was at the stakes and not in actual battle. Luckily for me the Jews inside were at as much of a handicap as I was, but even so I felt my shield shudder from absorbing an attempt to kill me, as my left arm moved my shield first to the left, then across my body, as if it had a mind of its own. Perhaps it did; after all, an appendage is attached to the body, and if the body dies, so does the appendage. I know how this sounds, particularly after Diocles has read it back to me, but that is really the only way I can explain how I managed to avoid being at the least severely wounded, if not killed because even as I relived the fight later, my mind’s eye could only recall the slightest suggestion of shapes and outlines that marked the warriors we were facing. Thankfully, the noise from my immediate left was totally Roman, as I heard familiar voices shouting their own challenges into the darkness, punctuated as always by the sounds of blade on blade, or blade on wood or wicker. There would be an occasional shower of sparks when two pieces of iron clashed together, providing just the briefest instant of illumination, where I could see the contorted faces of the Jews of Antigonus, all of them bearded and looking much like demons from the underworld. I had moved in such a way that the wall of the blockhouse was directly behind me, less than a full pace so that nobody could maneuver behind me, and I sidled to the right, my intent on reaching the intersection of the wall at my back and the one to my right. It would give me less room to maneuver, I knew, but it would also mean that I would be safe from someone attempting to flank me. Before I reached the right-hand wall, however, at the very corner of my vision I sensed a flurry of movement, or perhaps it was the rush of disturbed air that puffed against my face. Whatever it was, instead of trying to bring my shield around and across my body, I dropped to a knee, and in less than an eyeblink after that, for an instant lights came on, except they were inside my head as the point of some weapon struck a glancing blow off the crown of my helmet. If I had been standing erect, the point of whatever it was would have plunged deep into my chest, but not taking any time to savor the close escape, I swung my sword in a wild backhand arc, the edge of the blade suddenly slicing into something solid and meaty. The scream that issued from the man I had just struck was such that it drowned out the other noise for an instant, but there was a tug on my sword as the body of the man toppled over and away from me, followed by only a low moaning. Resuming my movement, I slid my right foot along the dirt until it struck something solid, which elicited a pained gasp from my victim and an instantaneous reaction from me, in the form of a hard downward thrust. The sword vibrated violently for a moment as I twisted the blade before recovering it, and I heard a gurgling sound that told me I had punctured the enemy’s lung, or lungs. Edging my way cautiously around the bulk of his body, I only stopped when I reached out and touched the far wall, telling me I had arrived at that point. Tucked away in a corner, for a moment I was safe and out of harm’s way, and I paused to catch my breath and take stock. Judging from the sound, my men had pushed their way more than a dozen paces into the blockhouse, but while I had heard multiple cries and screams of stricken men, most of them shouting their last in the tongue of the Jews, what I could not determine was whether or not the enemy was just falling back into a more tightly packed mass of men. I believe this had as much to do with my decision as anything, and I filled my lungs to bellow out.

“Who commands the Jews? Who is in charge? I call for a truce!”

I had to shout this several times before there was even the slightest slackening of noise. Finally, though, men stopped trying to kill each other and the only sound was the harsh panting of gods only knows how many men, and the moans of the wounded and occasional cry for help. Some of these were in Latin, which caused a twinge in my gut, but also fueled my resolve.

“What do you want Roman?”

The fact that the voice came from just a half-dozen paces away was disturbing enough, but I jerked back in surprise as much from the quality of the voice as its location. There was something familiar about the voice but in a way that I could not place.

“I want to talk to you about surrendering your men so that you’re not slaughtered to the last man,” I told him, trying to keep my voice calm.

The laugh that came from the darkness was undeniably bitter.

“So you want us to throw down our weapons to live as slaves?” I heard him spit onto the dirt floor. “No, we would rather die as men than live as slaves!”

I realized that he did not understand the situation, and I replied, “We wouldn’t make you slaves,” I promised him, although I had no business in doing so. “We’re acting in support of Herod, and he would….” I got no further.

“That fat pig would absolutely make us his slaves,” the man I took to be the commander shot back. “Oh, we might not wear chains, but I know that Idumean dog very well. And I know he can charm the birds out of the trees to come hopping into his pot. And he requires a lot of birds,” he added.

Despite the gravity of the moment, I could not stop a chuckle as I agreed, “He is a man who likes his food. But I will intercede; rather,” I corrected myself, “I will ask our Legate Gaius Sosius to intercede with Herod to spare your lives. Herod is a lot of things, but stupid isn’t one of them. He’ll understand that it’s not a request.”

“And who is this Roman who would be our benefactor? And why would he help us?” he asked, and it was a reasonable question.

“Because I don’t want to lose more men to Herod’s ambition any more than you do,” I replied evenly. “As far as who I am, my name is Titus Pullus, and I’m…”

“Titus Pullus,” he cut me off, and for a moment I thought the mention of my name would end the possibility of ending this, because he suddenly sounded even angrier, although I did not know why.

Oblivious to my surprise, he continued, “I know who you are Titus Pullus. You are the First Spear Centurion of the 10th Legion, the ones who were Caesar’s favorites.”

“It’s Primus Pilus,” I corrected him automatically, then winced, thinking that I might anger him even more. “And yes, of the 10th Legion, the Equestrians.” I made no attempt to hide my pride; in fact, I wanted to emphasize who was facing him in this blockhouse, if only to impress upon this unseen commander the futility of his continued resistance.

“So you would know a man named Joseph ben-Judah,” he said, this more quietly, and with a tone I had not heard from him before during our short conversation.

I believe that may have been when the first piece of the puzzle in my head of why he sounded familiar fell into place.

“Yes,” I replied slowly, while my mind raced. It was a guess, but I said, “And your brother wouldn’t want to see you die here in this blockhouse.”

“I have no brother,” the voice shot back, but through the anger I could hear the hurt, and the sadness.

I recognized it because I am sure my own voice had sounded like that, back when Vibius Domitius, my longest and best friend, and I had fallen out.

“Be that as it may,” I said quietly, “I am sure that the man who’s not your brother wouldn’t want to see you die here tonight. Or any of your men.”

The silence lasted for an eternity, but instead of a reply in words, what I heard was the sound of first one, then dozens of other weapons falling to the dirt floor of the blockhouse.


It was dawn by the time we had finished securing the survivors from the blockhouse, searching each man thoroughly. Despite my assurances, I was also taking no chances, and I ordered the Jews bound together in the normal manner, looping rope around each man’s neck so that if one of them tried to escape, they would all have to do so. I did not have to ask who their commander was; by the budding light of the new day it was easy to spot Joseph’s brother, because they resembled each other closely enough that they could have been twins. Which, as I found out, was exactly what they were.

Approaching him, I signaled to my man nearest him to unbind him.

“You  know who I am,” I began, “but I don’t know who you are.”

“Yes you do,” he sad bitterly.

“Not,” I replied softly, “your first name.”

Searching my face, evidently looking for some sign of guile there, he finally shrugged and looked away.

“It is Malachi” he said tonelessly. “Malachi ben-Judah.”

“Well, Malachi,” I assured him, “I meant what I said about having Sosius intercede with Herod to spare your lives.”

That was when he finally turned to look up at me, staring me with a direct gaze, but there was less anger in his tone as much as resignation when he asked, “And do you truly think Herod is going to listen to your Legate?”

“He will if he knows what’s in his best interest,” I retorted.

Malachi continued to stare at me, then finally gave an almost imperceptible shrug.

“We shall see,” was all he said.

When I determined he was done speaking, I turned on my heel to go attend to the other details that needed my attention.


“Kill them,” Herod said flatly, without the slightest hesitation.

It was just past dawn, and I had returned to where the command group was waiting where I had left them. They had of course dismounted, and stools had been brought; at least, stools for Sosius and the rest of the Roman contingent, along with ben-Judah and the other Jewish sub-commanders. But from somewhere what I suppose was Herod’s traveling throne had been dragged, along with a table and it was already groaning under the dishes that I assumed constituted Herod’s breaking of his nightly fast. Meanwhile, Sosius and Spurius were content to munch some bread, along with some hard cheese and olives, and the contrast could not have been more plainly illustrated between Romans and the Jewish king in the form of that repast. I had just delivered my report, pointedly ignoring Herod, which in retrospect was probably a factor in his own reaction.

I kept my attention on Sosius, and it was him I addressed when I protested, “But I gave my word that they would at least be allowed to live!”

“Which was not your place to do Centurion,” Herod shot back, sufficiently agitated that he dropped the leg of chicken that he had been gnawing.

I refused to acknowledge the Judean king, understanding that ultimately Sosius would be the ultimate arbiter of the captured Jews’ fate, no matter what Herod said. My heart sank when I saw his expression.

“Unfortunately, Herod is correct, Pullus,” Sosius said. “We should have been consulted before you made the decision.”

“If I had, we’d still be fighting,” I pointed out. “They weren’t disposed to give up and the men in that blockhouse still had a lot of fight in them.”

“Which is your job,” Herod interjected, but because of his position he was facing in the same direction as Sosius and did not bother to look over to see that my Legate had been about to speak.

I saw his face flush with anger, and I took a risk by essentially doing the same thing that Herod had in cutting him off, retorting, “Our job is to fight for Rome. And die, if necessary. Not for a dispute between two Jews who claim to be king.”

I heard more than one sharply indrawn breath, and it sounded very much like Herod might choke on his food, but I kept my eyes on Sosius. I was rewarded by the grim smile, accompanied by a slight nod in my direction.

“What Primus Pilus says is accurate, in all respects,” Sosius finally spoke. “And since it was a Roman Legion who suffered and bled to take this fortress, then I claim as their commander the right to decide what to do with those captives that we took in the process.”

If Herod had been angered before, now he was turning purple with rage, but somehow he managed to keep his voice under control.

“This is not just,” he croaked, his voice sounding like one of those chicken bones had gotten caught. “These are my subjects!”

“And Judea is a kingdom only because Rome allows it,” Sosius replied icily. “Need I remind you that if it weren’t for us, for men like Pullus and Sosius here,” he indicated both of us with his head, “that your chances of reclaiming your throne is nonexistent?”

I must say I enjoyed watching Herod sitting there, mouth opening and closing but nothing coming out, until he finally managed a disgusted grunt, accompanied by a wave of his hand signaling his defeat. Even better was the fact that from every appearance I had managed to ruin his appetite, as he not just shoved the plate in front of him, he hurled it away from him, the contents and plate striking an unfortunate servant. With some difficulty he pushed himself from his throne, and stalked off with as much dignity as I imagine he could muster. My watching his retreating back was interrupted by the sound of Sosius’ voice.

“But Pullus, in the future, make sure you consult with me before you make any promises. Understand?”

I turned and was happy to render a salute, along with my assurance that I would do just that.

I am not sure what I was expecting from Joseph ben-Judah, but his reaction at the news that his brother was spared, even if he was currently a prisoner, did not seem to please him at all.

In fact, his response was such that I felt moved to tell him, “Well next time I’ll make sure I kill him.”

His face flushed, but his tone was apologetic as he replied, “I am sorry Pullus. You’re right, I should be grateful. And I am,” he shook his head. “But I’m afraid that Malachi won’t be very grateful, and if I am being honest, it does not really change the issues between us.”

“But at least he’s alive, which means there’s a chance you can work things out,” I pointed out.

Although he agreed, I could see his doubt, but frankly their reconciliation was not a large concern for me.


I should have known better than to think that Herod would take being thwarted in this manner without coming up with a retaliation of his own. But I must admit that he did so, and in a way that put me in a difficult position with the men of the 10th. With the aid of our artillery, Joseph led his men up and over the walls of Jericho, and within two watches, the town was taken. It was not a complete success; in between our taking of the fortress and the ladders going up, Antigonus managed to slip out of Jericho, escaping to points unknown. While it is true that this development did not help Herod’s frame of mind any, I do not think it would have changed what happened once the town fell, as he turned his wrath not on the townspeople, but on us. No, he did not do anything as stupid as having his men fire at us once they took the walls; it was more subtle than that. Although knowing the rankers, they would have rather taken their chances dodging a few missiles than what happened. Once word came that the town was fallen and had been secured, Herod naturally insisted on being the first to enter the city. This was expected; what was not expected was that immediately after that he would order the gates slammed shut, almost literally in our faces. I had been at the head of the 10th, marching the men into the town in order to fulfill what we had been promised in the first pick of all the loot in the city, and while we were in formation, it was very much a festival atmosphere as men laughed and joked with each other about what fortunes awaited them inside the walls of Jericho. By my estimate I was less than fifty paces away when the two massive gates to the town suddenly swung shut, slamming closed with a tremendous, dusty crash. At first I was not angered; if anything I was bemused, thinking that perhaps Joseph was playing some sort of prank, although I could not really imagine the dour Jewish commander doing something of this nature. I was still standing there, and I am sure my mouth was hanging open when I heard hoofbeats from behind, then Sosius pulled up beside me.

“Why did you stop?” he demanded.

In answer I only pointed, and as I glanced over I was sure that his expression was an identical match to mine.

“What…why?” Sosius muttered.

Naturally I did not answer because I had no more idea than he did about what was happening. At least, until Herod suddenly appeared on the parapet of the wall above the gate. Even from where I was standing there was no missing the malevolent smile on his face.

“Highness?” Sosius glared up at the Judean, “Would you care to explain why you closed the gates?”

“Of course,” Herod replied happily. “It’s just that, on further reflection, I do not believe that it’s in the best interest of my subjects that I turn a battle-hardened Roman Legion loose on the town.”

Sosius and I exchanged a glance, the shock on his face a mirror to what I am sure was on mine.

“Are you mad?” Sosius asked incredulously. “Do you realize what you’re doing in breaking a promise to me? To Pullus here?” I appreciated the inclusion but I knew I was not the consideration, and Sosius went on to name the one who would truly be angered. “To Antonius?”

“I did not promise Antonius anything,” Herod said carelessly. “I certainly did not promise him that I would allow his men to commit rape and plunder of one of my towns.”

“But you did promise us,” Sosius hissed. “And I am Antonius’ representative here! And by breaking your promise, you have broken faith not just with these men, but with Rome itself, in the form of the Triumvir of the East, Marcus Antonius!”

If this shook Herod, he hid it well, for his tone did not change.

“That may,” he replied, “or may not be the case. We will just have to see. In the meantime I would just inform you that the only way you’re getting anything out of this town is by taking it by force. And that,” he pointed down at Sosius, “is something that I am sure the Triumvir would not countenance. Now,” he turned as if to go, dismissing us with a wave. “I must leave you here to make camp outside the walls. There are many things I must attend to.”

And he left us standing there, with a very bewildered and angry Legion at my back.


It still angers, and in some ways saddens me that Herod knew Marcus Antonius as well as he did, because he was exactly right about the Triumvir. Nothing was ever said officially or unofficially about Herod’s betrayal. That was bad enough, but what made matters even more infuriating was that, with Jericho taken and Antigonus escaping to Jerusalem, the end of the campaign season had come. Rather than settling matters, the 3rd and 10th were ordered to march back to Damascus for the winter, and Herod was told that he was on his own to finish off Antigonus. As so many matters involving Herod, and Antonius for that matter, what was promised and what was the actual case were two vastly different propositions, meaning that we found ourselves under the command of the fat toad once more, this time with a much larger nut to crack in the form of the city of Jerusalem.


But that is a story for another time.


  1. Great story, I really enjoy your writing and can’t wait for the next book!

    Thanks, Mike

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