Xerxes was a Nisean, a King of Horses. But could he save Marcus's life?
|Marcus limped down the mountain, the shard of an arrow still in his leg. The pain was agonizing but after 16 years in the Legion, he was no stranger to pain. He had shot the last of the Parthian climbers to his position just an hour before. He was as surprised as he was happy to be alive. The reconnaissance into Parthian territory had been an unmitigated success until the Parthian riders had caught up with his unit forcing them to climb the mountain. When he was shot he volunteered to hold the position in the rocks above until his friends had escaped. They did so in the night leaving him to fend off the dawn assault alone. Maybe someone was looking out for him as he had anticipated the route they would take and taken down two with well-shot arrows before they had even reached his position. The last man he knocked out with a rock before dispatching him with his sword.
He had collected a treasure from his fallen enemies. His time in the legions now over he knew the gold coins would come in handy for his new civilian life. He had hopes of marriage and was engaged to a Jewish bride called Martha who was waiting for him in Capernaum. But first, he had to make it home. The Parthians had left their horses on the road beside this dusty, rocky barren mountainside. When he got to the horses he found the only guard fast asleep. In his weakened state, he took no chances and killed the man swiftly. The horses were a mix of light cavalry and heavy cavalry. He picked the two largest of the bunch loading the smaller one with his captured treasure and supplies.
The Parthians were known for their horses. Their light cavalry was adept at firing from horseback for quick lightning attacks and then retreats, probing the enemy's defenses and wearing them down. But it was the heavy cavalry that rode the Great Horses of the Persians. These majestic beasts were strong enough to wear chain mail on their chests and to carry a fully armored knight. The horse he had chosen to ride did not have any armor on but it was a Nisean the Horse of Kings. It was chestnut in color and must have been eighteen hands in height. It stood out from the other horses like a king surrounded by peasants. Not even his seal brown Nisean companion was in this horses league. They both had knobbly foreheads and breathed authority. Horses like this had devastated Crassus's army massacred at Carrhae. Marc Anthony had attacked Parthia in response with more than sixteen legions at his command but Crassus's defeat was stuck forever in the memory of Rome. This horse was the legion's worse nightmare but now Marcus planned to make it his best friend. He patted the side of the horse's mane and spoke softly into its ear.
"My name is Marcus your new master. You are a king of horses so you shall be called by a royal name. I shall call you Xerxes and your friend Darius. We shall ride into the Roman Empire together and you shall save my life. Maybe it is time for the both of us to stop being warriors and start living a little hey,"
Xerxes calmed to the sound of his voice and neighed appreciatively when he gave him water and straw. The rapport between the two seemed to be established.
Marcus himself was a big man at about six feet tall with the weathered muscley look of a veteran legionnaire accustomed to living in the harsh sun and to a life of combat and hard work. Jewish by origin, an orphan captured in the rebellion in Galilee by the Tenth Legion and then brought up in the Legionnaires camp. He could read and write and speak multiple languages hence his suitability for missions of this sort. Using his strong leg to jump into the saddle he swung his bad leg over the horse keeping his balance. He felt Xerxes accept his weight and experimented with the reigns tilting his head to the right and the left and then with a gentle kick of the heels he pushed him forwards, with Darius in tow. He could feel the power of the horse beneath him with his good leg while his bad leg just throbbed with pain. He hoped that he would reach the Roman border before he passed out. Having lost a lot of blood he drank more than normal trying to keep himself hydrated in the sun.
Four hours later he spied the Roman outpost and approached at speed reigning in Xerxes fifty feet from the squad of auxiliaries posted there. He hailed them in Latin but they did not understand and so he tried Greek and received a response. They let him through. As they did so he spied the rest of his squad including Gaius his Centurion. He saw them smiling and in a state of shock at his survival and then he passed out on top of Xerxes.
Marcus woke up in a cart. He noticed the Niseans were now the cart horses drawing him down the road. Gaius was sitting beside him with the two other surviving members of the reconnaissance group.
As he spoke Xerxes turned his head as if recognizing the sound and gave a short whinny.
Gaius noticed and laughed,
"You made a friend."
"That's Xerxes, he saved my life..." said Marcus passing out again.
Back in the headquarters camp of the Tenth Frentensis Marcus woke again with Gaius seated beside him.
"Don't you have better things to do than babysit me," said Marcus.
"By the gods, you woke up, you are made of tough stuff mate. I bet on you pulling through," said Gaius.
"How much did you win?" Marcus laughed.
Gaius laughed and shrugged and then a more serious look crossed his face as he glanced down to where Marcus's leg had once been.
Marcus looked down realizing with a shock that he could not feel nor see his right leg anymore. It had been amputated.
He felt sick and in shock but he was not really surprised. He was grateful to be alive. Having seen so many close friends in this situation he remembered those that had handled it well and those that had not. He determined to be the former rather than the latter.
"Well, at least I still have my balls hey!"
Gaius gave a mock shake of his head as if saying no those have gone too. But Marcus knew him too well and knew that he was not serious. However, just in case he reached down and felt his groin and gave it a little squeeze. The two men shared a look and burst out laughing.
"Will they let me keep my loot and that Nisean Xerxes? With him, I would still have some mobility."
"You are a bloody hero mate they are going to give you a sword of honor and pension you off. You will get what is yours alright or I will bash heads together until you do."
"Do you think Martha will still have me even with just one leg?" said Marcus. He searched Gaius's face more nervous about his response.
"I know that she loves you and that like you she is one of those Christians for whom love is everything. She made a promise to her God about you. We are going to get you outfitted with a wooden leg and will make sure you get the best carpenter on-site to fit it properly and that he makes you a spare also. With a horse and a little practice you will be able to get around."
The men of his century had all gotten cleaned up for this last farewell. Their armor shone like it had when brand new even if the dents and scratches could never be fully erased. He had been with them when they had received those signs of wear, fighting alongside them, saving their lives, or having his saved by them. All of them were brothers and indeed being an orphan they were the closest thing to a family that Marcus had ever had. Raising their swords in salute they shouted Ave Marcus. He rode between the length of the two columns of men from his century on Xerxes who was also carrying his treasure, supplies for the eight-day ride to Capernaum. His right leg now had a wooden stump. He wore it while riding for the balance. It was with great pride and sadness that he said goodbye to his brothers in arms this one last time. Gaius followed behind him riding Darius and would accompany him to Capernaum to take a leave of absence with his own wife Sophie who lived there. At Marcus's side, he wore the sword gifted to him by the Legionary Legate. The sword had a pearl handle and was of great quality and had come with a promotion to the honorary rank of Centurion.
Riding with Gaius had been fun and fortuitously uneventful. Bandits knew better than to attack Roman legionnaires even when they had a numerical advantage. Rome's vengeance was usually swift and thorough and there were easier pickings on the road to Capernaum. So they had joked and swapped stories most of the way. As they approached Capernaum Marcus grew silent. He worried about what Martha would say. He was half tempted not to go back at all for her sake.
Gaius, who had never seen that look on his friend's face spoke,
"Mate, I have lost count of the times we were in combat, but I never saw you afraid before today. Surely the worst is over now?"
Marcus rubbed the back of his neck. Finally, he answered in the smallest voice.
"She could say no!"
"I will be there with you. You do not have to face her alone."
"No, no way!" Marcus spoke a little too strongly, "Look, sorry, I meant like... I guess... I have to face this and overcome this alone."
Then he continued,
"Martha is my deepest fear and yet my heart longs for her, my soul aches for her. That she might reject me is my deepest fear, not death or maiming."
Gaius nodded with some concern in his face for his friend's anguish,
"I have met your woman and she is kind of special, if truth be told. So how will you face your greatest fear?" asked Gaius
"Well, I thought I would start by saying hello."
Gaius laughed and then Josephus joined in until their sides ached, neither of them wanted the laughter to stop but when it did Gaius looked at his friend and said.
"Do it with flowers and you might improve your chances" said Gaius.
As they approached the house the fears intensified. He dismounted Xerxes hopping down onto his good leg. He hesitated, before the door, then knocked suddenly remembering he had forgotten the flowers. But turning towards Xerxes he noticed the horse had picked a bunch from the roadside and was holding them in his mouth. He took them patting the horse on its head, whispering,
"You are a lifesaver, Xerxes!"
Martha appeared. Seeing Marcus she went bright red, her hand went to her mouth and she started to sob. She approached him slowly her eyes fixed on his taking the flowers and then hugging him gently kissed his cheek.
He sobbed unable to speak and feeling deeply ashamed.
"You made the right choice, there is still more than enough of a man here in my arms for me to love forever," Martha said with steel in her eyes that spoke of great willpower and determination and which seemed to push strength back into Marcus.
Xerxes whinnied and Gaius smiled in relief for his friend.
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