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Показать все книги автора/авторов: Gibbins David

«The Tiger warrior», David Gibbins

David Gibbins

… after this, toward the east and with the ocean on the right, sailing offshore past the remaining lands on the left, you come upon the land of the Ganges; in this region is a river, itself called the Ganges, that is the greatest of all the rivers in India, and which rises and falls like the Nile. Close by this river is an island in the ocean, the very farthest part of the inhabited world toward the east, beneath the rising sun itself it is called Chryse, the land of gold. Beyond this land, by now at the most northerly point-where the sea ends at some place in the outer limits-there lies a vast inland place called Thina. From there, wool, yarn and silk are transported overland by way of Bactria to Barygaza, and by way of the river Ganges back to Limyrike. As for this place, Thina, it is not at all easy to get to; for people only rarely come from it, and then only in small numbers. The place lies directly beneath Ursa Minor, and is said to be anchored together, as it were, with parts of the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, where they turn away… What lies beyond this region, because of extreme storms, immense cold and impenetrable terrain, and because of some divine power of the gods, has not been explored…

From the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea Egyptian Greek, c. First Century AD

In the ninth month the First Emperor was interred at Mount Li. When the emperor first came to the throne he began digging and shaping Mount Li. Later, when he unified the empire, he had over seven hundred thousand men from all over the empire transported to the spot. They dug down to the third layer of underground springs and poured in bronze to make the outer coffin. Replicas of palaces, scenic towers and the hundred officials, as well as rare utensils and wonderful objects, were brought to fill up the tomb. Craftsmen were ordered to set up crossbows and arrows, rigged so they would immediately shoot down anyone attempting to break in. Mercury was used to fashion imitations of the hundred rivers, the Yellow River and the Yangtse, and the seas, constructed in such a way that they seemed to flow. Above were representations of all the heavenly bodies, below, the features of the earth… After the interment had been completed, someone pointed out that the artisans and craftsmen who had built the tomb knew what was buried there, and if they should leak word of the treasures, it would be a serious affair. Therefore, after the articles had been placed in the tomb, the inner gate was closed off and the outer gate lowered, so that all the artisans and craftsmen were shut in the tomb and were unable to get out. Trees and bushes were planted to give the appearance of a mountain…

Sima Qian, Records of the Grand Historian Second Century BC



Lake Issyk-Kul, central Asia, autumn 19 BC

The sun hung ominously in the eastern sky, reddened by a swirl of dust from the desert beyond. The man reached the top of the hill, shifted the armor on his shoulders and eased the great sword on his back. Below him lay the boulder-strewn foreshore, and beyond that a great body of water that seemed to stretch off to infinity. He had tasted the water, and it was more fresh than salt, so they had not reached Ocean, and the horizon ahead was not the fiery edge of the world. He strained his eyes to see where the lake narrowed and the towering snowcapped mountains dipped, to the pass that led beyond, under the rising sun. The trader had told him these things, but still he was not sure. Were they already dead? Had they crossed the river Styx? Was this Elysium? For the first time he felt a pang of fear. Do the dead know they have passed beyond?

“Licinius!” A voice bellowed up. “Get your arse back down here!”

The man cracked a tired smile, raised his arm then looked down to the others. They were waiting on the far side of the icy torrent he had forded to get here, where the meltwater that filled the lake rushed through the treacherous canyon they had traversed the night before. Earlier that morning the trader had led him to the secret place where the boat was hidden. The trader. Licinius could still smell him, smell the fear. He had chained him to a rock behind the hill. It would not be long now. He remembered what the man had said, over and over again, desperately, as they dragged him along. That he knew where to find the greatest treasure in the world. The tomb of an emperor, the greatest the world had ever known, somewhere over the eastern horizon. He would show them the way. They were guaranteed the riches of kings. They would live like emperors, each of them. They would find immortality. Immortality.

Licinius had been sceptical. The others had been entranced. It was what they had wanted to hear, the lure that had drawn so many to their deaths along this route. But Licinius was still not sure. He glanced to the horizon again, then looked south. Had he made the right decision? He looked back to the lakeshore. On the far side was their camp, rectangular, surrounded by sharpened stakes facing outward. The ground had been hard, baked like rock, and they had been beyond exhaustion the night before, but they had dug a ditch and heaped up the stony soil into a rampart, as they had been trained to do. And they had good reason. They had a terrifying new enemy, one who had first come for them after they had attacked the Sogdians and captured the trader. It was an enemy they had heard but hardly seen, had grappled with in the terrible swirling darkness of the canyon the night before. An enemy who had taxed all their strength and guile as soldiers. As Roman legionaries.

They had route-marched for weeks now. Twenty-five miles a day, when the going allowed it. But the nightmare had begun a lifetime ago. Two hundred miles east from the Mediterranean coast to the battlefield at Carrhae. Fourteen hundred miles from there to the Parthian citadel of Margiana, chained and whipped by their captors. Anyone who faltered was beheaded on the spot. It had left only the toughest. And now, thirty-four years later, they had escaped and were on the march again, a thousand miles over desert and mountain, in scorching heat and icy cold, through storms of dust and snow that veiled their past as if it were a shadowland. They had followed the route of Alexander the Great. On the edge of the desolate plain beyond Margiana they had passed the last of his altars, a great plinth that marked the eastern limit of his conquest. They had dug for treasure there, no longer mindful of the wrath of the gods. They had found a few coins, nothing else. Ahead of them had risen a forbidding wall of mountains, and the caravan route. Others from Margiana had escaped this way almost twenty years before, and word had come back, rumors that had spread among the prisoners like wildfire, of great armies beyond the mountains, armies that would pay a king’s ransom for mercenaries, for soldiers who had once fought for Rome.

And now there was another reason. Licinius remembered what the trader had told him. A great tomb, buried under a pyramid of earth, built by seventy thousand slaves. A tomb that he, the trader, could open up for them. The tomb of the greatest emperor the world had ever known, an emperor who would make them forget Alexander. A tomb that contained all the riches of the world, riches that would be theirs for the taking, in a place where they would be treated like gods.

They had been fifty strong when they had broken out of the citadel, fleeing through the breach they had made in the walls with all the gold they could carry. Half of them had been cut down before they were out of sight of the walls. The caravan route, the route of the traders, had been sinuous, confusing, not one road but many, and more than once they had been tempted up a blind alley, gone higher and higher, through narrower defiles until they came out on snow, places so high an eagle could not fly, where fire burned with a pale flame, where they had gasped for breath, knowing their own mortality, trespassing in the home of the gods. They had come down again, and marched on. They had needed to find a guide. They had needed food-desperate, ravenous with hunger, they had become no better than the wild dogs who circled travelers in these parts, preying on the stragglers and the dying. And fate had cast her dark spell on first one companion, then another. They had been attacked by others like them, marauding bands who preyed on the caravans, but now they were stalked by some darker force that had followed them, hunted them down since they had pushed the trader ahead and told him to find a way out of this place of nightmares.

Licinius saw Fabius begin to make his way up the hill. He watched the others wade out to the boat, carrying the sacks of booty, led by Marcus, the shipbuilder from Aquileia, who would try to keep it afloat. He felt his own bag, the shape in it. He had wrested the bag from the trader when they found him. There had been another bag, identical, and he had given it to Fabius. The trader had pleaded with them not to open the bags, and to keep them separate. They had humored him, needing him. Licinius still did not know what lay inside. He would open it as soon as he had dealt with the trader and found somewhere to sleep that night. The rest of the booty had been taken from the Sogdians. The traders had been leading camels across the plain, heading west, laden down with bags of precious stones, textiles, shimmering cloth they called serikon. The legionaries had killed them, all but one. They killed everyone they came across. It was what they did. Then they had made a pyre of it all, the bodies, the textiles, everything, and gorged themselves. They had been famished, and had gnawed at the bones like dogs. They had found wine, skins of it, and had drunkenly fashioned crude branding irons from the camel bits. They had branded themselves. He could still smell the burning flesh. He looked at his forearm, squeezed it, watched the blood oozing out, coagulating. There would be a good scar, one that would cut through all the other scars, the scars of whipping and beating, the old scars of battle. It hurt like Hades, but he relished the pain. It helped him focus. It was how they had been trained. It was how they had survived thirty-four years enslaved, whipped by day and chained by night, building the walls of the Parthian citadel. Most had died. Those who remained were the toughest. He held his fist in a hard ball and grunted. The mark of the brand was a number seared into their souls. XV. Fifteenth Apollinaris. The lost legion. A legion of ghosts. Their legion.

It was as if their souls had been locked within them, frozen for the past thirty-four years. Ten thousand had marched from the battlefield at Carrhae. They were only nine now, one fewer than the day before. “Frater,” he whispered, remembering Appius. “Ave atque vale. Hail and farewell. Until we meet in Elysium.” They had spent the night in a fearful place, full of crumbling canyons and dead ends, rent with the moans and howls of the spirits who lurked within. The sky had blackened and crackled with lightning, as if Jupiter himself were slashing at the fabric of the heavens. The wind had shrieked up behind them like a dragon breathing fire through the canyons, licks of poisoned breath seeking them out, reaching into every nook and cranny. They had huddled down under interlocked shields, the testudo, the tortoise, as they had been trained to do, under square shields they had made for themselves, while the rain thundered down and the arrows of their enemy slammed in. Appius had gone half-mad, screamed at their enemy to show themselves, to fight like men, and had broken free, and then an arrow had taken him. Licinius had dragged him back under, gurgling, wide-eyed, and held him with an iron grip even after he had passed beyond, shaking and convulsing. Death in battle as it really was, not as Licinius had once sculpted it in stone for his patrons in Rome. He had gone half-mad himself, smearing his body with the blood, and had unhorsed the bowman, bellowing in rage and grief, clamping and twisting the man’s throat, tearing his eyes out. They were human, he had screamed, not demons, and if they were human they could be defeated. He had wrenched away the horseman’s great dripping sword, its gauntlet in the shape of a tiger, ripped off the scale armor, throwing it over his back, and had taken the severed head in his hand, held by the long plaited hair and knot. But the other legionaries had already gone, taking Appius’ body with them, leaving him to struggle behind, and he had slipped and dropped the head in the maw of some mighty waterfall.

Hours later he had come upon them, the dwindling band, with the trader in tow, on the edge of the lake. They had found boulders with mysterious carvings, and they had laid Appius there with his weapon, a broken bronze dagger-axe. They had put coins on his eyes, one coin from the altar of Alexander the Great, the other a strange coin with a square hole they had taken from the Sogdians. They could not risk the smoke from a pyre, but he, Licinius, the former sculptor, had used a chisel he had fashioned to gouge out a few words on a rock beside the body. He had put the sacred number of their legion on the stone, so Charon would know where to take Appius when he came for him, to join all the others who shadowed them, the ghost legion.

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