Crastus knew he could wait no longer. He adjusted the close fitting silver breastplate that marked him as a Commander of the Empire. Nodding to his aides he walked through the colonnade to where his coal black stallion stood angrily whickering at the groom that held his reins, as if he was eager to be off.
As he swung his forty-three year old, campaign worn body into the saddle the panorama of the city spread out before him. The city, in the late autumn Mediterranean sun, glistened and gleamed as its stonework terraces sloped down to the river Pescara below. Beyond the city walls he could, from his vantage point, see the fortresses that guarded the approaches to what had been the summer capital of the empire for the last three hundred years. The whole complex known throughout the empire as the ‘Seven Sisters’ was by far the strongest defensive position outside of Rome itself. If he stayed he knew the remnants of the Fifth and Seventh legions could hold it for a considerable time; but the might of the Pretender’s army was bearing down on him along the coast road barely four miles away.
To preserve this ‘jewel of the empire’ he must give it up; and on orders from the Emperor. Valerian had yesterday issued the proclamation that declared the city of Zampetta an open city. Now, they all hoped the scars of civil war which was tearing the empire apart would at least bypass this beautiful place, and by falling back allow his outnumbered troops to join the Emperor’s and swing the tide back in their favour.
His aides fell in behind him as he nudged the stallion into motion. They clattered through the open and deserted forum and began the winding gentle descent to the south gate. As they exited the gate the remainder of the first cohort of his own Fighting Fifth legion fell in and they picked up speed. The causeways linking the city to its forts were deliberately narrow and doglegged standing at least five feet clear of the fertile soil contained behind the curtain wall. They clattered at a steady canter past the inner gate of the middle fort, AnnMarie, and following the deliberately crooked road, wound their way to the outer gate next to it. They cantered on through and began the slow and gentle climb up the grassy south side of the river valley. The fortresses all stood with their inward facing gates open forlornly behind them. The city gates were also left open and you could see that there was a steady trickle of refugees leaving by the river road; obviously scared that the oncoming legions would ignore the protective provisions of the proclamation.
Crastus reined in and looked back as he reached the crest of the hillside and vowed silently to return. Then he motioned to his bodyguard and folloClick here to return to book