thefarthestlegion

Remembering the Dead

The battle was over long before Varus and the guards arrived at the family villa. My master’s father, the Elder Varus, lay against the wall beside the door, across his lap lay Clodia, my master’s mother. Around them spread a pool of blood to match the one at the temple. The wailing then had been Clodia, not Panthia.

The Elder Varus spoke as we approached but looked past us. “She ran in front of me, took the blade herself.” His hard jaw hung slack. He closed his eyes a moment, but when he opened them again he glared at my master. “She ran in front of me. Just like that.” He reached across Clodia’s body to gather her lifeless hands onto her bosom.

It was only then I saw that blood had flowed not only from the wound in Clodia’s abdomen, but also from a long tear in the Elder Varus’ side.

My master stood, silent, letting his sword arm drop. He began to lean down, but straightened and looked around quickly, then he rushed for the door calling out, “Panthia!” 

I knelt to tend to the Elder Varus’ wound, removing my already stained sash and pressing it hard against his side to try to stop the flow.

"She’s gone. We all fought them, even the slaves. All dead. But they took her." The familiar gravel in his voice thickened. It was hard to hear him as he whispered. "Slits for eyes." He glanced at me, but his head settled back to his chest, his eyes intent on Clodia’s face. "Tell him. They wore hoods."

So passed Decimus Quinctius Varus the Elder, Knight of Rome, soldier, father and husband, slave owner.

I felt nothing.

The slaves. Please forgive me if I take a moment to remember. My friends, lovers, rivals, colleagues, tormentors, fellows under the yoke.

Cassia.

Cassia was nearly my own age. Her strength would have shamed Hercules. She was our household cook, and her bread was like a rock filled with mud. Had I been a free man, I would have married her years ago, but neither of us could bear the thought of a child born a slave. If there is an afterlife, she will be in the plains of Elysium. Maybe Demeter will show her how to make a loaf of bread.

Blasius was tall, broad and strong, quick with a song or a joke. He was a lover of wine and dance.

Brooding Marius. He was a schemer, always trying to find a way to curry favor with our owners, even at the expense of the rest of us. He had dreams of buying his freedom and living someplace warm. He was always doing things to earn extra money, and the Elder Varus allowed him to keep it. Once he spent some of those precious sesterces to buy me a new pair of sandals. He didn’t explain why, and though I thought hard on it, I could never think of any advantage it might have bought him or any cunning scheme those sandals might have served. I will remember him for that, then. The rest is dust.

Drusa. Tiny Drusa. Clodia’s hand maiden, was quiet and timid, only just turned twelve. I will never know who she might have become.

I still try not to imagine any of their last moments. I did not enter the villa again until almost a year later, escorted by still more guards and chatting with an Emperor.

So I felt nothing then for the Elder Varus and his wife. Over time I have come to remember them as kinder than most. They mattered to my master, and because I have known him since he was a young boy, shared confidences and hardships with him, Varus does matter to me.

Varus rushed back out the door. He turned as if to say something to his father and stopped so quickly that he stumbled. His breath came in gasps, and his grip on the sword made his knuckles bulge. He stood there and moved his head from side to side, then his body rocked, and he let out a small sound. It was the sort of sound a man might make to politely interrupt a conversation, a tiny sound. He whirled and hammered the pommel of his sword into the doorway with such force he cracked the stone and showered chips onto me where I knelt beside his parents.

I left my sash and stood, trying as best I could to wipe the blood from my hands onto my tunic. “He wanted me to tell you. It was more of the men in the black hoods. They took Panthia with them.”

My master looked at the sky. I don’t know if he prayed, or checked the remaining light, but when he looked back down, he sheathed the guard’s sword in his own empty scabbard and straightened his shoulders.

The guards, left behind in my master’s haste, spilled out of the door in a jumble of armor and swords. He snapped them to attention. “You. Report this attack to the Prefect. You and you, with me.” He pointed to the youngest of the guards. “You, raise the alarm, then find Sabinus and tell him what’s happened. I want the engineering cohort assembled in full battle gear, and tell the Batavians to blockade the river in both directions.”

Without hesitation, they obeyed him like he was a Legatus or a Prefect. He was only a centurion in charge of a special engineering cohort. These were his guards. He was their prisoner. But there was a sound in my master’s voice. 

The legion uses horns to signal an attack or call out marching orders. If you’ve heard them, the sound travels through a man’s gut and into his spine, straightening it by force. There was a note like that in my master’s voice, a low toned, undeniable call to arms. This was the first time I had heard that note in his voice, but it would not be the last.

An Audience With King Baudulf

Out of concern for the living, we ran from our home leaving no one to tend to the dead. My master and his two guards ran ahead of me despite their armor. A day of unaccustomed exertion and shock had turned my arms and legs to straw. It did not occur to me to ask our destination until we passed the center of the camp and continued on, not pausing at the Prefect’s office.

"Master." I gasped. "Where are we going?"

"They killed the Romans." He answered over his shoulder.

"I don’t understand."

"These men in their hoods, they’ve killed citizens right in the middle of an armed camp. They’ve killed a legatus. They are not afraid of the Empire."

"Yet they took Mistress Panthia alive. Why?"

"That’s what I intend to ask."

When we arrived at the Villa of Baudulf, his palace guard, the only Ubii allowed to carry weapons in the city, were doubled on each door and marching back and forth when arrived. It was a sign of their agitation that they even tried to delay my master and his men.

Normally a patient man, my master did not waste time explaining his authority to investigate the murders, or to the debate the fine points of the Ubii alliance with Rome. Instead, he nodded to his men and each of the legionnaires hammered down an Ubii guard with the pommel of his sword while my master ran past, tripping another palace guard with a well-aimed kick and lifting another to slam him bodily against the wall so hard that the man slumped behind us to the ground.

I followed into the palace. It seemed prudent to at least attempt to explain ourselves, so I shouted “Official business! Urgent Imperial business!” as we sprinted past the impluvium in the atrium to Baudulf’s personal quarters.

There the guards were thick and their spears ready, forcing us to stop at last.

I was grateful for the chance to breathe. “Official.” I coughed and tried again. “Business.” I drew a breathe and stood as the palace guards advanced.

Our own two loyal jailers arrived only slightly disheveled from their own encounters. They stood to each side of my master and myself, swords drawn.

I tried again. “We have urgent business. We must see King Baudulf.”

"Have some patience!" A booming voice filled the chamber as Baudulf himself stepped through the line of spears, sheathing his sword. "Varus, you could have been killed. You are always welcome here, but you can’t just run in here sword drawn." He gestured and the palace guard lowered their spears a fraction. "Now I’m sure you are here about the executions, but I think when I explain why it needed to be done, you will understand just as your Emperor did."

And this, more than being attacked by masked men, or holding back the lifeblood of my master’s father or running around the camp and back—this pronouncement left me speechless.

My master had better luck finding words. “Murderer! You had them killed?”

The Romans all gathered close, the two legionnaires looked around, obviously weighing apprehending Baudulf against fleeing to report the criminal and call for reinforcements.

"When you find out what they were conspiring to do with those damn Batavians, you’ll understand. It’s what you or any reasonable man would have done."

"Conspiring." My master’s self control was slipping. His voice rose and his grip shifted subtly on his sword. From long familiarity and sparring I knew he was bracing for a suicidal lunge.

I resigned myself to follow him.

"Yes, those two would have given us all over for sacrifice and sold the meat."

It struck me then that we might not all be having the same conversation. “Two? Forgive me, what two do you mean, King Baudulf?”

"Flaccus and Laevinus." Drutmund stepped from the shadows behind Baudulf. If he was armed, his weapon was not visible. "What other two could it be?"

Varus shook his head and snorted. “What two? My father. My mother. Their entire household. They were slaughtered by men in black hoods, men like the ones who attacked me this morning.”

"That can’t be." Baudulf took a half step back and turned to Drutmund. "Black hoods you said."

Drutmund cocked his head to the side. “The Batavians. They must have worn hoods to make it seem like our men.”

Baudulf turned back to us. “We did not kill your family or their…” His voice caught as realization struck him. “Gasthild, my daughter! What of Panthia?”

"She was taken. Alive," my master said.

"My Gasthild, Damn them. I’ll roast their eyes every last one of them. These are the same monsters we have been fighting. The same who you have been aiding, you ignorant, arrogant, Roman fools." Baudulf’s face reddened and his hand wrapped around his sword hilt.

Drutmund lay his own hand over Baudulf’s, staying his sword before he could do something rash. “They will have taken my sister as leverage against us. I’m sure they plan to use her as a royal hostage and will protect her. Unless…” He stopped and looked up and to the left as if noticing a thought there. “What if they mean to use her as a sacrifice? They would do that, if only to spite us.”

"Sacrifice?" Baudulf whirled and half drew his sword again. "We must attack now, retrieve her. My daughter will not be fed to their hideous gods."

Varus’ eyes followed the two back and forth as he argued, growing narrower with each pass. He sheathed his sword and gestured to his men to do the same, before holding up his hand and shouting to be heard of the two bickering Ubii. “Wait. Wait. Will one of you tell me just what is going on?” 

"They mean to raise their god from the tomb you unearthed for them. They plan to bring Hercules Magusanus, The Young Old One, bodily into this world. He will open the way the way for the Titans, the Old Ones, to return and devour us all."

I looked from my master to his in-laws and back and tried to sort the wheat from the chaff. Cults were a common enough part of political intrigue in the Empire. Everyone from the Mithraists to the Christians tried to sway things one way or another, sometimes by stealth, sometimes by force. I discounted the talk of Old Ones. One thing you could count on was the gods themselves never showing much interest in the games of men, whatever the poets might claim. I was wrong, of course, but at the time, it was something Baudulf had said in passing which worried me more than gods.

"Pardon me, King, but for the sake of the understanding of an ignorant slave, did you say that the Emperor already knows about this?"

The Cave And The Doorway

Madness.

The battlefields of historians and poets are such orderly places—brave Ajax battles Hector while the world watches. But at Troy, it was Ajax himself who prayed to Father Zeus to lift the fog so that both Acheans and Trojans might live or die in the light of day.

I never understood that part of the epics until I stepped, invisible, into a battlefield.

The noise pressed against every part of me. Spears struck shields so hard that their shafts shattered to splinters. Flights of arrows whistled. Screams and shouts rose from the injured and dying. 

Limbs and armor and standards tumbled past us as if they were all part of one large creature intent on tearing itself apart.

Like children trailing their teacher, we each held hands. Drutmund, or at least I guessed that it was Drutmund, lead us. Our course first skirted the worst of the fighting then brought us back, along the bank of the river. The very heart of the battle was near the excavation for the Batavian temple.

The Batavians themselves defended it with all of the ferocity which had made them such able allies to the Romans. And behind their foot soldiers, Batavian river boats had arrived in great number. Archers and spear casters stood on the decks and filled the air with death.

A detachment of miraculous Batavian horsemen mounted the bank directly in front of us, rising from the river as if they pulled Poseidon’s own chariot. Each horse was harnessed with a mass of inflated bladders which must have made their river crossing trick possible.

Behind them, they drew a barge filled with still more troops. 

Counting out the precious moments until we would again become visible, we were forced to wait for the horsemen to rush past us and smash themselves against the approaching Roman line.

The Romans met their charge with a rising arc of spears.

All around us, the spears fell. I wondered what it would look like to someone following the flight of one of those spears if it pierced me then. Would the air itself seem to bleed? None struck us and, as the last Batavian rushed to his doom, we crept onto the barge and across it. One edge of the barge touched the very dike wall which had once seemed the most broken thing in our lives, only a day before.

The hand I held before me and the hand behind me each pulled hard. I pulled back as we clustered more closely together. We stumbled down a muddy bank into the hollow of the recently emptied excavation. The mud clung to our lower bodies until we must have seemed a sort of crab thing, scuttling sideways on eight legs. Across the bowl of the excavation was an open cave mouth guarded by perhaps twenty wary Batavians.

This then, was our third delay, and I had counted to six hundred already.

While we were still a good distance from the cave, someone’s hand pressed my head in close to the others’, and I heard Drutmund’s voice whisper, “They will surely see us if we do not give them something else to look at. Ganhard, you know what to do.”

One of our number, surely Ganhard, separated. I could see his muddy legs set out back the way we had come to travel the circumference of the bowl, coming upon the cave from the far side.

I wondered even then how the Batavians could have missed these odd, unconnected legs crouching and scuttling toward them, but they watched the rim of the bowl resolutely, unaware until one unfortunate, the farthest from us, began to cry out. His cry ended with a gurgle as he fell back, clutching his throat.

The others rushed to where he lay and raised their shields to defend against archers or spears perhaps, but there were no arrows. He rolled and kicked his last.

I saw Ganhard’s legs enter the cave, and we followed from our side.

The cave was a narrow, dark place with low, stone ceilings which scraped my head. If we were visible now, it didn’t matter as there was very quickly no light to see at all.

Still holding hands, we ducked and crouched and breathed in the dark. If the Batavians had a man waiting inside, he would be able to kill us easily in the dark, one by one as we approached.

When the hand before me, surely Drutmund himself, released mine. I nearly shrieked and ran back for the daylight, but the quarters were close and my master behind me blocked the way.

A barest whisper came from ahead. “Here. Step up, then turn to the left. Be very careful. There is a sheer drop to the right, and the way is narrow.”

I followed his instructions, pressing myself to the left wall, and I could soon feel the open air to my right and hear echoes of small sounds and dripping water which seemed to come from a long, long, way down.

With no warning, the wall I pressed against ended, and I fell into a perfectly circular room with smooth walls and a floor carved with twisting patterns like none I had ever seen before.

But I had no time to spend staring at the floor.

The room was illuminated by a red doorway, hexagonally shaped like one cell of a honeycomb. The edges of the doorway glowed red as heated iron, but there was no feeling of heat.

Drutmund’s now visible silhouette stood in the doorway with Ganhard. Drutmund turned back to my master and myself and waved us forward. “They will have her at the temple.”

He plunged through the door and down a hillside beyond.

I did not move.

Through this doorway deep in a cave, a cave which was itself beneath a mighty river, I saw red, swollen stars. Between me and the stars, I saw the outlines of trees like none I had ever seen. Likewise dim and red was the light from an enormous moon. Too large.

Just above and to the right of this monstrous face, a smaller, paler, sister moon moved with visible speed toward the zenith.

Ever resolute, my master crawled past me and was the first Roman to step through the doorway to the land we would come to know as Medea.

I will admit that the first Greek followed him with much less haste.

II Minerva

By the time my master returned through the doorway, I had recovered from my swoon. My head throbbed, but I was on my feet. I stood with Laevinus and the legionaries in the chamber with the patterned floor.

When he saw Laevinus, my master was as surprised as I had been. The camp prefect was dead according to Drutmund, then, Drutmund had lied about other things too. Even so, after a day full of shocks, my master only gave himself a moment to stare before saluting and handing over his prisoners.

Two of the soldiers led Ganhard into the center of the room where he immediately fell to his knees gasping.

Ernust staggered into the wall of the cave and joined Ganhard on the floor.

My master swayed, but Laevinus caught him before he could fall and lowered him to the ground. “You will be OK, brave Varus. It’s the doorway, let your body adjust. I was told to expect this when you came back.”

We waited as the three slipped into a deep sleep. It lasted only a short while, then each roused just as I had. Once everyone was steady enough, we went back over the narrow ledge to the cave exit. Our passage was much easier than before with torches and two safety ropes held by men braced at each end of the ledge.

Ganhard and Ernust were tied to each other and to a third rope when they crossed in case they, understandably, decided to throw themselves into the pit to avoid Roman justice.

My master whispered to me as we crawled through the tunnel to the cave entrance. “When I said bring help, I didn’t think you would bring back the dead.”

I chuckled, but I could feel the silence from him as the weight of the other deaths and losses of that interminable day settled on him.

Outside, pale, wholesome moonlight lit the ground. I checked more than once to make sure I only saw one moon, and I was relieved each time. The scene the moonlight revealed was less comforting. The bodies of the guards we had passed were scattered around the basin, and once we were over edge of the bowl to the bank, I saw still more bodies. Batavian and Roman, they were sprawled where they had fallen both on the ground and in the shallows of the river on each side of the excavation. In the river itself, the Batavian boats burned and foundered.

Baldus, the leader of the Auxiliaries, who had been so bold and hale fixing the breach only a day ago, now lay dead and a traitor near those same repairs. The once eager Publius knelt a little further up the bank, sharing water with a wounded man. He looked much older than I remembered.

The walls everyone had worked so hard to build, stood sturdy against the river despite the battle.

Men with stretchers and wagons gathered the wounded around us as we marched through the middle of the battlefield. We were escorted by two columns of soldiers with their spears raised. I wasn’t sure if it was to protect us or to imprison us.

"I thought you were—" my master began.

Laevinus pressed a finger to his lips. “Not yet.” He nodded toward the escort. “Not here.”

Inside the camp walls, things were almost as they had always been. Extra guards watched the gates, and as we came up the Via Principia, I saw guards also watched the Varus villa.

The crossroads at the center of the camp, where the Temple of Jove and Laevinus’s headquarters stood, was surrounded by a solid wall of Imperial Praetorian Guard. Mounted cavalry filled the roads in each direction, but they opened a path for us all the way to the door of Laevinus’s office.

There was no ceremony or trumpets or introductions. Inside the office, standing over Laevinus’s desk, Emperor Hadrian bent over a table full of reports. He wore a full beard which seemed odd for a Roman. He looked up and waved us in. “Good, good. All here. Close the door.”

Laevinus did as he was told. There were no guards here, only myself, my master, Laevinus, the Emperor, and a youth who I at first took to be Greek.

No one spoke until the Emperor sealed a letter and turned to us. “You’ve done well. I hear that you took two prisoners.”

My master saluted and stood perfectly straight, his face a carving of military discipline. “Yes, Emperor, I captured two of the enemy for questioning.”

"The enemy, yes, I suppose they are now." The man who ruled the civilized world looked weary. "I am sorry for your loss, Varus. It’s a terrible thing you’ve suffered, yet you held to your duty."

Varus tightened his jaw at the mention of his family. “My duty, Emperor?”

"Laevinus, did you not order this man to find the murderer of Flaccus?"

"I did, Emperor." Laevinus, for once, was also standing straight.

"And it seems, Varus, that you have brought not just the murderer of Flaccus, but also a co-conspirator. That’s very good work. Exactly the kind of commitment I need right now."

"Emperor?"

Instead of answering, the Emperor picked up one of the documents on the desk. “You’ve seen this?”

"Yes, Emperor," my master answered.

I could see that it was the same letter King Baudulf had shown my master earlier.

"It’s a rather shoddy forgery, and who would believe that Rome would ask our allies to deal with an internal, legal matter, let alone allow them to execute a Roman citizen?"

"I thought it seemed unusual, Emperor, but there was very little time to discuss it."

The Emperor nodded. “I believe Baudulf is loyal if a little naive. Drutmund did this to convince him. Laevinus is and has always been loyal to Rome. He was the first to alert me to Flaccus’ involvement with Drutmund.”

"So Flaccus…"

"Was a traitor yes, and not just to Rome." The Emperor looked to the youth and something unspoken passed between them. "This is." He paused as if introducing someone of importance. "Antinous."

"Hello, Alexandros." The youth, whom I had never met or heard of, greeted me in strangely accented, but fluent, Greek.

"Ah.." There are few things which worry a wise man more than the attention of the powerful. This is doubly troubling for a slave. "Hello."

"I’m curious what you made of things beyond the portal?" He continued in Latin with less of a noticeable accent, at least to my ear.

It took me a moment to realize he meant the doorway in the cave. “It was very…” I paused again and shrugged.

"Different?"

"Yes."

"Where would you say that you were, Athenian?"

I looked to my master and the Emperor, they both seemed interested in my answer, perhaps for different reasons. Laevinus simply looked uncomfortable.

"There were two moons," I said.

Antinous smiled, but said nothing.

I described all that I had seen in Medea, the plants, the animals, the temple and the doorways. In the end, I had to come back to the moons. “In our world there is only one moon. I have never heard stories of two moons in the underworld or in the realm of the gods.”

"What if I told you that every star in the sky is a sun, like your own, and that around some of those suns, other worlds revolve."

"I would be…" I hesitated again, but decided this was not the sort of discussion one could gracefully decline. "I would be surprised. Why would our own sun travel around our world instead? It seems the cosmos would not make such an exception."

"Exactly."

I decided that the Emperor and his companion were toying with me for their amusement, and I looked at my feet, terrified. “You mock me. I apologize if I have given offense in some way.”

"You’re scaring him." The Emperor said.

I felt my cheeks warm. My heart beat faster. Any moment they were going to decide it would be entertaining to put me to death. I knew it.

The Emperor turned the conversation to my master. “Varus, what Antinous is trying to say is that the place you were today. It’s not our world.” He opened a large scroll, and I saw that it was a map of the constellations. “We think it’s here near Hercules. Which may explain where the Batavians get some of their ideas, if we had only listened.”

He looked at us, and he must have seen the blank stares all around. He sighed. “There are other portals like the one you uncovered. Antinous showed me one near Ctesiphon during the Parthian campaign. It was a very different place from the world you visited. That world had been destroyed by a great war.”

His eyes looked far away for a moment. “After seeing what had been done there, I knew that it was best to draw back the borders of the empire, strengthen our defenses. We have to be prepared.”

"Prepared, Emperor?" My master was rapt. 

I was wondering if it was some poison Antinous had used on the Emperor that had driven him mad, or if they were both addled together. I glanced at Laevinus, but he stared straight ahead, still at attention.

"What I learned in my own visit to another world is that we can expect to be attacked by an enemy I can barely comprehend, let alone fight." He looked at Antinous again. "Show them."

Antinous smiled and took off his ears. The sides of his head were smooth with two tiny holes where his ears might be. He then removed his wig, and I could see that a thin ridge of raised flesh or bone split his skull from front to back. “I’m from still another of those worlds. I came here to warn you, to help you survive.”

I was just deciding that whatever toxin had driven these two mad must be a vapor, and it was now effecting my own mind as well, but the Emperor was not finished with his surprises.

"I need a military man, someone I can trust, not a politician like Flaccus." The Emperor nodded at Laevinus. "I’m making Laevinus the new Legatus of the first Minerva. He’s a solid Eques. It’s time to rely on the Knights of Rome again." He took two folded letters from the desk and handed the first to my master. "This is my personal guarantee of the funds to secure your family’s status as equestrians."

My master’s eyes widened. I could see the struggle there as hope met memories and shattered.

Perhaps the Emperor saw it as clearly as I did. His voice lowered. “You have a wife and son still. A man like you won’t rest until he finds them, but if you go alone you’ll just be a dead hero. I don’t need hero’s, I need soldiers.”

"Emperor—" my master began, his voice so tense it vibrated.

Hadrian made a chopping motion with his hand. He handed my master the other letter. “You misunderstand me. I want you to go after her. I want you to find her and your son and bring them home, but you’ll do it with a full legion at your back.”

My master looked at the letter. “The Second Minerva?”

"My predecessor taught me well. Strike first and strike hard. Back in Rome, they think I’m sending these troops over the Rhenus, a secret mission to weaken the barbarians. Antinous and I thought this portal might lead to the crossroads you found. I want to build a fort there and strike right at Drutmund’s heart before he can summon the Old Ones."

My master’s eyes widened with wonder. “You want me to design—”

The Emperor laughed and said to Laevinus, “Always the engineer, just as you told me.”

Laevinus’s face softened, and he grinned.

The Emperor turned to my master and continued. “Well I suppose, yes, that will be up to you too, but what I am saying is that in honor of the battle here and of the legion your father and you have both served so well, I have decided to name this new legion the II Minerva, and I want you to lead them.” The Emperor put his hand on my master’s shoulder. “Legatus.”

*** This is the end of season one of the The Farthest Legion. ***

*** We’ll be taking a short break to catch our breath. ***

*** Watch for Season Two to start soon. ***

The Messenger

This was one of those rare times when I was not at my master’s side, so I must relate what happened from what he later told me.

While I enjoyed my rest in the Elysian Fields, my master crouched in a shadowed arch in the temple in Medea and waited for Drutmund’s messenger. When the messenger did not appear immediately, he grew restless and began to explore his surroundings. Careful to always keep out of sight of the doorways, he moved through the darkened hallway, wary of open pits or other surprises.

Even so, when the hallway ahead brightened with a pale blue light, he leaped backward slamming his shoulders to the wall. The light did not come from a torch or skylight. Instead, the entire ceiling glowed. Spaced evenly along the walls were familiar stone disks. Looking back to the darkened hallway behind, round holes marked where other disks had been removed at some point.

He exited the temple and went to where we had left body of the second guard, and the cursing, but still bound, Ganhard. With them were the invisibility garments they had taken from us, useless without fresh disks. My master gagged Ganhard and checked his bindings. He took the garments and a bag from the other guard’s belt.

Hurrying for fear of missing the messenger’s return, my master quickly pulled the black clothing over his own and pried a stone from the wall with his sword.

A great flash and pop knocked him to the ground. His entire arm tingled. The light from above was gone, but the next section of hallway still glowed. With great trepidation he reached out and touched the stone on the floor. It was cold and inert. He slipped it into the pouch at the small of his back and was disappointed to see his hand flicker as the glove worked for only an instant before failing.

He set the spent stone aside and considered the receptacle from which it had come. He saw a mechanism inside with what looked like a flat spring and catch.

Steeling himself for another jolt, he pressed on the next working stone and felt the mechanism beneath move and click. The light above went out and the stone fell into his palm. By the light of the next section, he confirmed that, so long as the stone was in the pouch, his hand and body were invisible. Without a mirror he could not be sure that the hood was working correctly. He removed the stone and put it into the woven bag, then he gathered two more stones and returned to his vigil.

It was not very long before not one, but two of Drutmund’s men returned through the gate, a Batavian and an Ubii. They stepped from the lemon yellow door.

"Ganhard!" the Batavian shouted. "Time to leave."

My master slipped the stone into place, then he made sure the cloth covered him from crown to toe and there were no smudges to make him visible. He worked his way toward the two messengers, barefoot inside the cloth slippers for stealth.

"He should be here," the Ubii said after a moment. "Check the temple, and I’ll check outside."

The Batavian laughed. “So you can scurry right back to the cave?” He shoved the Ubii toward an arch. “You stay right here. I’ll go find the lay-about.”

The Ubii hung his head until the Batavian turned.

My master was almost close enough to strike, but backed away toward a shadowed arch where he could conserve his power stones. He could use them again when he had the Ubii alone. If he had to kill the Ubii, he could capture the Batavian when he returned and have a prisoner for questioning.

But just as he was deciding what to do, the Ubii drew a dagger and attacked the Batavian from behind, cutting his throat and kicking him far enough away that the larger man’s dying sword swing missed by several feet.

The Ubii walked to the raised dais at the center, far from any of the doorways. “I have a message for Decimus Quinctius Varus from my Princess Gasthild.”

Stunned, but wary, my master continued to the archway and there shouted toward the smooth wall so that his voice would echo and confuse his location. “I am Varus. What is the message?”

"She told me that if I found Ganhard missing, I was to kill my colleague and tell you that she is alive and well and that you will need many troops to stop Drutmund." The Ubii spread his hands. "He has an army and terrible weapons left behind by the gods." He put his dagger on the ground and set a sling beside it. "I have some knowledge of his plans and defenses, I am to provide you what information I can."

My master removed the invisibility garments and stuffed them into the bag with the stones, checking first that the cloth did not become invisible when it touched the stones, then he slipped his sandals back on and strode out to meet the messenger with a show of confidence. “Good, I had hoped she would send word. We should head back to camp to get help.” My master handed the dagger and sling back to the messenger. “What is your name?”

"Ernust."

"Ernust, Ganhard is tied-up outside the wall over there. Go free his legs and march him back here. Watch him. He’s not in a good mood."

"He’s alive?" The messenger frowned. "He’s a dangerous man, better we kill him and not give him a chance to turn the tables."

"I’ll take the risk. He may know more of Drutmund’s plans than you do."

Ernust went to get Ganhard while my master slipped back into the invisibility garments and followed.

Outside, Ernust edged around Ganhard and cut the ties for his legs, then hauled him to his feet. “Varus is marching you back to the Romans. Cooperate with him, and I’ll see us both out of this.”

Ganhard rolled his eyes and shook his head.

Ernust cocked his head. “What?” He pulled the gag from Ganhard’s mouth.

"Behind you," was all Ganhard managed to say before my master brought the pommel of his sword down on the back of Ernust’s head.

Ernust was only stunned, but it gave Varus a chance to bind his hands.

Though Ganhard’s feet were free, he didn’t try to interfere.

"Your Drutmund is a tricky one, Ganhard," Varus said. "He had Ernust here kill the Batavian he arrived with just to gain my trust."

Ganhard said nothing, as my master cut strips from the dead guard’s tunic to make a rope to tie them from neck to neck.

"We are going to climb up the stairs and go back through the cave." He prodded Ernust with the tip of his sword. "Any trouble from either of you, and I’ll throw you to the plants."

All the way up the stairs, the two were busy enough with climbing and weary enough from their head wounds that they didn’t have time or energy to turn on my master, but he was sure they would make some attempt at the ledge inside the cave. It would be easy to force him over, especially if they weren’t too intent on surviving themselves.

It never came to the test, however. 

As my master prodded and poked his two prisoners through the doorway, he met Laevinus and the legionaries who had advanced to the room with the strange designs on the other side.

"Welcome back," Laevinus said. "The emperor is looking forward to meeting you."

Stale Wine

The sound of the footfalls of my mistress, Drutmund, and the troops receded.

Would Drutmund’s man be staring at my master, myself, and the other guard to make sure we didn’t find a way to glimpse which door he used? Or was Ganhard the sort to steal a peek himself and so be distracted enough for me to reach for my knife?

Drutmund had not blindfolded Ganhard, so he must trust him. If I moved he would be sure to see it, but if I didn’t retrieve the dagger before the other guard lifted his blindfold, then I would be caught regardless.

Just then, my master coughed and began to make horrible retching noises through his gag.

"Be still, you," Ganhard ordered.

My master only grew louder.

Could he be choking? My heart beat faster as I worried that Ganhard might let him die without removing the gag. Then realization washed over me, and I had to stifle a laugh. I turned it into a gasp and shouted, “You have to help him! My mistress will be angry if you don’t.”

Ganhard snorted. “These things matter little, slave.” But I heard him take a step in my master’s direction.

I scrabbled my fingers at the dagger, almost loosing it as it spun on its guard, but I managed to snag the hilt and snatch it up. I folded it back against my wrists and began to saw at the rope.

A slap nearly as loud as the one my mistress gave me echoed in the temple, and my master stopped his choking with a muffled growl.

What was it with these provincials and their slapping?

One of the turns of the rope parted, and I went to work on the rest, trying as I did to keep the rope from falling so that I might still seem, at a casual glance, to still be tied. I remembered the first time I was ever bound so, on the deck of the slaver’s ship after they pillaged our small vessel, bound from Athens and just hours from landfall at Kechries. Had there been a dagger near then, I would have tried to kill every pirate aboard. I like to think I might have even got one or two.

So it was with some satisfaction that I rolled backwards over my hands and rose to my feet with the blindfold loose in one hand and the dagger in the other to find Ganhard facing away from me. He stood between my pole and my master. The other guard, blindfolded and unaware, faced away to my left.

I crouched and moved forward as quickly and silently as I could.

Ganhard still heard me and swung about, but he was not expecting me or the dagger, and he was even more surprised when I did not strike at his face or midsection but dropped and quickly sliced his heels as if he were sulking Achilles and I was Paris.

As he went down, I leaped beyond his reach and quickly finished the other guard, who followed his orders and did not attempt to peek.

"I’ll kill you!" Ganhard bellowed from the floor.

I stayed well clear of him as I moved to free my master, but he crawled toward me and lashed out with his sword, catching me in the thigh.

My master used that moment to drive his hobnailed sandal into the back of Ganhard’s head with enough force to bounce his skull off the hard stone.

After that Ganhard was still.

My master’s first words as I removed the gag, were, “Which door?”

Whatever pride I might have felt in our escape evaporated. “I did not see master.” I could not say now if Drutmund and my mistress had been entirely through the doorway when I rose up from my post. At the time, my eyes were fixed on Ganhard.

My master grimaced, but after a moment he nodded. “She will have left us a mark somehow.” He looked down at Ganhard. “And if Drutmund is true to his word, then he will send a messenger for this one soon, anyway.”

He bound my wound with our two blindfolds and tied the still breathing Ganhard securely hand and foot with our ropes, then I hobbled after him as we made a circuit of the huge chamber. 

We were both smiling when we saw a small, chalk arrow pointing to a door the color of lemons, but our smiles turned to curses when we noticed another and then three more, each pointing at different doors.

I counted thirty-two of the glowing doors, every two separated by one of sixteen arches which led to the circular hallway. The great doors we saw from outside did not open into this chamber. “That thrice-damned brother of hers is almost as smart as Panthia,” my master said, after we completed the circle.

"If we hide these two we can still see which door the messenger returns through and perhaps even capture him." I offered.

In answer, my master hefted the dead guard over his shoulder and headed toward the nearest arch to the circular hallway and outside.

The floor was smooth, so I drug Ganhard by his ankles. Even so, I was panting heavily before we reached the plaza outside.

"We’ll hide these two up against the wall out here on the far side from the way we came in. That should be enough. I’ll go back and wipe up the blood as best I can and lie in wait for the messenger. Hopefully he’ll think it was us who were killed and come through the hallway where I can take him."

"And what would you have me do, master?"

"Alexandros, I want you to go home, and bring back help." He put his hand on my shoulder. "You have been more loyal to me than I could have ever asked. If you don’t come back yourself, I will understand."

I sighed at the thought of the climb up the hill. “If I don’t come back, it will be because those Batavian bastards outside the cave put a spear through me as soon as I show my gray head.”

"You are not so old as you pretend."

"Or as young as I remember." I set out for the stairway.

The climb took even longer than I anticipated. The greater moon was setting by the time I reached the top, and there was a reddening glow on the horizon that I took to be dawn coming. I passed the corpses of the beetle pig and the rope wing entwined about each other. The hook grass had already dissolved them to a few tatters and a hollow shell. Wonderful place, Medea.

By the time I reached the glowing doorway into the hill, my injured leg was barely any use at all. I hobbled through the doorway at the top wanting nothing more than a cane or a long nap. Inside, I cursed myself for not taking the torch that the dead guard had dropped. The light from the doorway lit the walls and the curling patterns on the floor, but it only made the dark hole through which I had to go that much darker in comparison.

I cannot say how I made it over the narrow path, past the drop-off in the dark with an injured leg. The air seemed to claw at me where I clung to the rock, tugging me to my death, but somehow I made it past and somehow I crawled back to the mouth of the cave. I was fortunate that there were no branches or turns in which to become lost or my bones would still be in that dark hole somewhere.

Near the mouth of the cave I saw the flicker of torches. I was drawn to the light, but I proceeded cautiously, keeping well back to the shadows.

I carefully peered around the corner and saw the entrance was filled ten deep and five wide with soldiers. Their shields were locked and their spears were ready. Every other man in the second row held a torch. They were obviously prepared to kill anything that came out of that cave.

My leg had begun to throb. When I put my hand to the wound it was wet. I tried to shuffle backwards. I steeled myself to turn around and somehow make it over the deadly ledge and down the stairway to warn my master, but that was the moment that my body let it be known that it had done all that it could do.

***

I woke to torchlight and glinting armor all around. A huge face floated just in front of mine. It looked vaguely familiar.

"Alexandros? Alexandros, can you hear me?" It was Laevinus, the traitor Ganhard had killed.

I drifted back to sleep, comforted to think that I was dead now and had nothing more to concern me. I was only slightly troubled that the Elysian fields smelled so strongly of stale wine.

Coming Soon: Season Two

Thank you for coming along for the story of Varus, Alexandros, Panthia and the II Minerva Legion. We’ve reached the end of the first season.

If you’ve just arrived, you can start from the beginning here.

 I’m going to take a short, planned break to work on another project, then come back to tell the rest of the story. Meanwhile, I want to say how great an experience this has been, the interest and feedback of readers, and the helpful edits and questions have been great. Thank you Sean for the reminders, and my wife, Jerri, has especially been a big help. She’s always my first reader and my best coach.

Take a moment to savor this moment as I am. This is the very best moment in a story. This is the point where we know what’s at stake. We know and hopefully care about the people it will effect, but we don’t know what’s going to happen. And that’s the most exciting place to be.

What happens next?


Find out.

Watch here for news, and for the next episode of The Farthest Legion

Medea

On the other side of the glowing doorway, marble steps led down a hillside to a smooth-walled building made of the same stone. Each step was so tall it seemed it might have been carved by a cyclops for the gods themselves.

I was born in Athens and have been to Rome, and although I have never seen the great temples and pyramids of Egypt, I am certain that no building in the world is as grand as the temple in Medea. Its domed roof was nearly level with the doorway to the cave, yet we must have climbed down two hundred steps to reach the bottom.

Drutmund and Ganhard led the way. It was too far to step and hopping from stone to stone became tiresome and painful. We were all soon crawling rather than walking as we lowered ourselves down. 

Ganhard cursed and Drutmund’s face showed his annoyance at the steps, but If my master felt the same pain in his hands and knees that I did, he made no sign of it.

"Take care not to touch the plants." Drutmund called back to us.

For the first time I noticed his voice seemed closer and louder than it should. The air felt as heavy as if it were filled with fog, but it was a clear evening. The stars and moons shown down on the plants he described. Their fragrance was like nothing I had ever smelled. Sharp and sweet and faintly foul. No grass seemed to grow here. Instead, the ground beyond our stairway was covered with thin stalks which branched and branched again like a miniature forest of trees, all made of needles.

Despite the exertion of the climb and the run across the battlefield earlier, I felt an excited sort of energy in my chest and head. Each breath seemed more full of vital essence than even a spring breeze from the ocean after a storm. 

"The air," I said.

"Thicker," Drutmund called back. "The gate has changed you, changed your body, so that you can breathe at all. If it didn’t, you would already be dead."

His words made me wonder if we had perhaps passed through another gate like the Plutonium gate in Hierapolis which the Phrygian’s claimed lead to Pluto’s realm in the underworld. I had heard that the deadly vapors there killed any animal or bird which came near. Perhaps if one passed through that gate, one would also come here? I was just considering these things when something the size of a small pig or dog came running across the hillside. It shrieked with a high pitched wail that was at once almost human and utterly alien.

Against the ground cover it was difficult to make out, but for the brief instant that it crossed the pale steps I saw that it had four legs. It also had two tiny arms jutting from in front and great curved tusks or mandibles which, together with the glittering shell on its back, made it seem part centaur, part pig and part beetle.

A shadow of wings crossed it, then something which looked like a writhing coil of ropes with four wings dropped out of the sky onto its back.

The beetle screeched louder, and charged off of the steps and up the hillside toward us.

It had only made it a short distance when its screeching suddenly stopped.

I looked to my master and saw his eyes were wide as mine. He had his sword out and its edge appeared bloody in the red light. Drutmund and Ganhard waited, each with drawn daggers, but they did not seem concerned, even through they were closer to the beast.

I thought at first that the rope-thing had strangled the beetle, but rows of tiny quills rose through the beetle and rope-thing alike. Each stopped thrashing. I saw that the quills were spikes from the plants. As each quill pressed though its victim the branches opened and turned down like barbs on a fishing spear.

"This land kills her own children more easily than ours." Drutmund shrugged and put away his dagger. He resumed his climb as did Ganhard.

"Medea," my master said.

"What?"

"This land is like the enchantress Medea, Jason’s wife. The one who slew her children." He climbed down to the next step. "You read it to me nearly every night one summer when I was young."

"Never trust Euripides," I said. "He always had an agenda."

My master looked me in the eye. He nodded. We continued down the steps without speaking again.

The steps widened to a broad plaza and ended at huge, double doors nearly twenty feet tall, but Drutmund motioned us away from the doors to a low ledge which circled the temple.  We made our way around the curve to a smaller, arched opening ten feet high. The inside was dark, but I could see a bare glimmer of light reflected from the smooth wall of a hallway which seemed to follow the outside wall. We stepped through the arch and continued around moving further from the double doors. We passed more arches to the outside and through these I soon saw that a flat space paved with stone tiles stretched behind the temple for a great distance. At the far end I saw a thin spire which seemed so tall it disappeared into the sky.

The spire would make an excellent landmark, and the plaza was a flat place, free of the horrible hook grass, should I need to run.

We came to an inner arch and Drutmund led us through it. I guessed that we were perhaps one quarter of the way around the temple from where we started. It led into a shorter hallway, barely wide enough for one person at a time to pass.

Drutmund went first, then myself and my master behind me. Ganhard followed from the rear and, thinking back, that should have been all the warning we needed. I can only imagine we were both overwhelmed by the strangeness of the place. 

The blow to my head was very professionally done. I hardly noticed it on the way into darkness.

***

When my senses returned, I was just as professionally tied to a post on a raised stone platform in the center of the largest room I had ever seen. All around the edges of the room were glowing doorways like the one which had brought us to this land. Each glowed with a pure light of a different color, and through each doorway I could see a different scene, bright sunshine and clear skies, storms and darkness, waves on an ocean, a forest, a desert.

In other circumstances, I would have been fascinated.

My master was tied to another post facing me, already awake and furious. From the fresh cuts and bruises on his face, he had put up a better resistance than myself. His mouth was gagged. They had seen no reason to gag me, so I assume he did not start that way.

In the center of the platform stood Drutmund, Ganhard, and ten soldiers. Half of the soldiers were Batavian and the others Ubii. Most carried acrid smelling pitch torches which burned and popped with unusually tall flames that guttered and flickered and made their shadows jump around them. My mistress was also there, and she loomed over Drutmund.

She was furious.

"Look at his face!" She shouted. "You could have killed him!"

"He didn’t cooperate." Drutmund answered with a tone that, uncharitable as I am inclined to be toward the man, I can only describe as reasonable.

"Harm him once more, and I will slice you and half your men apart before I force the rest to kill me and this child." Her fingers worked as if aching of themselves to grab her brother’s throat.

"There is no need to harm him if you cooperate." He sighed as if dealing with an annoying youngster. "Gasthild, this is for the best for you and your child, and it is your duty to your family to—"

"You murdered them, the grandparents of my child. What about that family?" She whirled and stalked toward me, her eyes like the wild eyes of the bull in that other temple which seemed so far away now. "What about you, little hornet?" 

The guards started and moved toward her but Drutmund stopped them with a gesture. He watched with his eyes narrowed.

My mistress was thus able to cross the distance to me in two strides and unwound her arm like a whip with a palm at the end, bringing it across my face with a crack like like a sapling breaking in winter. “Where were you when your master needed you, worthless slave. You are no hornet, are you? You’ve lost your sting. Better I call you ‘slug.’” She leaned down and grabbed my hair with her left hand and put her nose to mine.

Dazed by her slap, I had trouble focusing. When my eyes did focus, I wondered if they were working correctly. My mistress’s eyes were soft and pleading.  She was trying to tell me something without saying it aloud.

I felt her press something  hard and sharp under my leg with her right hand.

"Worthless." She spat in my face and stood, her eyes hard again. She turned to my master. I could not see the look which passed between them, but she did not step any closer to him. She turned and looked at Drutmund over her shoulder. "You will free them both and let them return. Do this, and I will go with you without struggle."

My master shouted through his gag and kicked his feet.

My mistress turned back to him, and now I could see his face. He stared into her eyes. She must have mouthed something to him, because he nodded and squeezed his eyes shut.

It is a disconcerting thing to see a centurion cry. I know my master had not cried since he was a very small child. I only mention his unseemly display because it gave me some sense of what had passed between them.

"Then we must leave now." Drutmund turned to Ganhard. "Take one man with you, cover his eyes and the eyes of the prisoners. Watch them so that neither they nor you see which doorway we take, then escort them back to the cave. I will send a messenger for you in a few hours."

I moved my leg to cover the dagger my mistress had hidden beneath me. 

Ganhard ripped apart a sack for blindfolds and bound first my master’s eyes, then the other guard’s, then mine.

"Face that way." Ganhard said to the guard. "Turn your head, and I will slit your throat."

His voice came from my right side. The dagger was on my left. I scooted myself around the post to my left, pushing the dagger along with my leg.

"Not you, you idiot." Ganhard chuckled. "I don’t care what you look at."

"Just trying to cooperate," I mumbled. I worked my way back to where I had been. His comment confirmed my suspicion that his real orders were to kill us both as soon as my mistress was through the door.

The dagger now lay in the open, beside the post on my left side.

Ganhard was on my right. The other guard was blindfolded.

I curled my left hand around and could just touch the blade with a finger.

This was going to be a very close thing.

Invisible Voices

We all rushed out of King Baudulf’s villa and stared alike as Castra Bonnensis transformed before us. Over my many years in this frontier fort, it had been only a sleepy town, a farming community and a trading outpost, a place for merchants, temples and politicians. With the sound of the horns and the flash of signal flags, it became the hard edge of the Empire.

Down the Via Principalis, I could see the quarters of the First Century, the elite troops whose barracks were, by tradition, nearest the main gate. They maintained a rotating force, prepared to turn out at a moments notice. These men poured out, armed, armored and ready, falling into formation and clicking iron cleated sandals against the stone of the road in timed and practiced rhythm without missing a step.

Behind them, the rest of the First Century was soon armored and in formation. From there, a ripple of activity rolled back through the camp. Drill after drill through the short summers, long winters and interminable rain had trained the very bones of the legionaries to move without thought or hesitation.

Some of the families and merchants cried out in shock, but from the legionaries I heard only a few crisp orders, then the awful silence that had so frightened the warriors of Athens and, though they would never admit it, even perplexed the Spartans. The First Minerva Legion moved without war cries or bravado or even drums to time their march. Like a great machine made of boots, their nailed caligae tick, tick, ticked against the stone.

My master took the Emperor’s letter from Drutmund and handed it to one of his guards. “Take this to the Tribunus Laticlavius. Tell him everything you’ve seen and heard here.”

The guard hesitated then set out for the Prinicpia at a run.

The other guard looked from my master to the forming columns and back.

"Go, ahead. I’ve fulfilled Laevinus’ last request. We know who the killer is now."

The guard gave him a quick salute and followed his colleague.

I was surprised to see them go so easily, and I allowed myself a moment of relief. Too soon.

"Traitors!"

The voice came from behind us. I turned, fighting the urge to cringe and hide behind the Ubii.

A young runner came straight towards us from the direction of the rear wall of the camp. He looked right at me as he shouted again, “Traitors! Batavian auxiliaries have attacked along the river bank. To arms!” He ran past us, shouting his alert the entire way. Merchants, and families of legionaries cleared the roads and slammed doors and shutters in his wake.

"It has started." Baudulf said.

"Where do you keep the invisibility garments?" My master asked.

                                                     ***

Soon I was wrapped in an ill-fitting tunic and hood, my hands and feet uncomfortably covered in cloth. My master, Drutmund and the still scowling Ganhard were likewise attired. We gathered in Baudulf’s atrium, the water in the central pool reflected us in the dimming evening light.

From outside, we could already hear the sound of battle from the direction of the riverbank, the direction we would soon be going.

"Once I put this stone in the pocket at your back, you will have only enough time to count to one hundred ten times before you are again visible, by then, hopefully, we will all be in the cave."

"And you’re sure this is where they have taken her?" My master slipped his sword up the long sleeve of his tunic and tucked the hilt inside of his loose-fitting glove. There was no slit in the leggings to reach his scabbard.

"I’m sure." Drutmund said. "They will take her directly to the temple. The doorway will be open, but heavily guarded."

I began to miss my dagger.

Drutmund slipped one of the stones into the pocket at the small of my back and thrill ran through me as pinpricks covered my body like a fallen-asleep limb rudely wakened to move.

"Now run!" he shouted into my ear.

I had just enough time to see myself vanish in the reflection from the pool before I passed it on the way to the door.

From the sounds of footfalls my master and the others were just behind me.

At the door I paused and discovered that one of the risks of being invisible is being run over by ones invisible companions.

We spilled to the ground in a confusion, but managed to pick ourselves up and continue with much hissed cursing from Drutmund.

Now that they were in front of me, I could see that the cloth did not make them completely invisible. I could still see the outline of each as if they were made of very clear ice or glass. Where dust from our fall adhered to their clothing, the illusion of invisibility was also spoiled, so I beat at my legs and back as I ran, careful not to dislodge the stone. I warned the others and they did likewise.

Thanks the gods the roads were empty. We would have been run over had there been a racing cart or hurried patrol.

We headed, not for the main gate, but for the riverward gate and there met our first delay. The gate was guarded as we might have expected, but it was closing. I had already counted to three hundred, so our time was running short.

I heard my master’s voice then, sharp and quick with command. “Hold that gate!”

The guards looked around in shock at the voice from out of nowhere. They hesitated.

We made it through with inches to spare.

Outside the wall, men were dying.

Letters and Ghosts

"The Emperor knows that I am loyal." King Baudulf handed my master a scroll with a broken seal of black bitumen on the back.

"A secret trial?" My master asked as he scanned the letter. "Both Leavinus and Flaccus were condemned." He showed it to his guards whose wide eyes and mouths matched my own shock.

Baudulf continued. “The Emperor had planned to see the sentence carried out himself, once he arrives. But there was no time. We also know of a third conspirator. The Emperor believes it may be you.”

"Me? Why? And none of this gives you the right to execute Roman citizens yourself."

"That is your fault, Varus." Drutmund pointed toward the river. "That excavation of yours is complete, despite all our efforts to delay it. You are diligently digging our graves out there, no wonder he suspects you."

"It was you who flooded the works?"

Drutmund nodded.”My men. We had to keep the cavern and temple blocked until your Emperor arrived with reinforcements. It would be—”

Baudulf snorted. “Now that the entrance to the temple is open, the Batavians will summon the Old Ones. If that happens, swords and spears will be useless.”

Amazed by the turn of events and caught up in the conversation, I almost interrupted the king himself then. If Drutmund had wanted the excavation stopped, why had his men only breached the wall, not torn it completely down? I had seen the damage, and it would not have been much harder to collapse the dike completely. Maybe they had intended to tear it down but had been interrupted in the night? Years of service kept my tongue still.

My master let the letter fall to his side. “Flaccus I can imagine letting his greed get the better of him, but Leavinus? He is a loyal Roman and a good friend to my…” He stopped.

Drutmund took the letter from his hand. “There was strong proof, strong enough that your own law demanded his death. It is done. My man completed his mission only an hour ago.” 

Varus shook his head. “You expect me to believe that your man simply walked into the Principia, past armed guards, and killed the Praetor in his own office?”

Drutmund gestured behind us. “Ganhard, reveal yourself.”

And so I saw my first wonder of the Old Ones. Behind us, a man appeared from empty air, pushing back an invisible hood. His head seemed to float in space unsupported at first, then his body faded into view. The hood appeared as well, hanging limp at his neck. Once visible, it was black with slits for eyes. There was a bandage plastered to the man’s cheek. From the wound and the coals of hatred in his eyes as he glared at me, I knew that this was the man I had marked at the temple.

The Romans and myself drew back. One of the guards muttered, “Larvae.” Ghost.

Baudulf spoke then. “This is the sort of magic the Batavians hope to gain from the Old Ones. We have a few of these robes and hoods, stolen by Drutmund’s men from a store watched over by Batavian priests.” Baudulf walked around to the man called Ganhard and showed how the hood was part of a single black garment which covered the body of the killer as well as his head, hands and feet. “He is no ghost. This fabric blends pefectly with its surroundings, making the wearer seem almost invisible.”

"Like the cap of Hades, then." One of the guards said.

"These elder gods are nothing like your children’s stories." Drutmund laughed. "And this is no magic either. This is a device, a made thing. The Batavians cut this fabric long ago from a shroud they found covering something in a tomb deep in the earth." He joined Baudulf and pulled what looked like a round stone from a pocket at the small of the man’s back. "These hold the power which the fabric requires to work. Each stone lasts only a few minutes. These same stones power all of the Old Ones’ devices. There are few left, and they can take days to replenesh themselves through subtle means. Some no longer replenesh themselves at all."

Baudulf took the stone and shook it above his head. “With these, we can send men to recapture my Gasthild, but we will need help to rebury the temple entrance. This time we must bury it so well that no one can ever open it again.”

My master rubbed the fabric of the killer’s tunic between his fingers. “Lend me one of these suits, and I will recover Panthia myself.”

Drutmund shook his head, “You don’t know how to—”

"Do you know Gaius? He is the new tribunus laticlavius, second in command to Flaccus. Gaius will be in command of the legion until the emperor arrives. I expect he will have the lot of you on stakes and crosses by the main gate to greet the emperor. And since the last orders of Laevinus were to have myself and Alexandros executed as well, we will probably be joining you. So if I am dead regardless, let me at least die trying to save Panthia."  He turned to Baudulf and looked him in the eye. "She, and our child, are all that I have left."

Whatever Baudulf might have said was lost in a sound which came then, through walls and doorways. It was faint, but it was a sound nonetheless that silenced us all.

It was not the shouts and alarms we had all been expecting as word spread of the murders. Instead, it was a long, pure tone, drawn-out and almost plaintive. The same horn sound which I had been reminded of so recently in my master’s voice, I now heard clearly from outside the walls of King Baudulf’s home. 

This call had not echoed over Castra Bonnensis in fifteen years, save in exercises and drills.

A rally signal, this was the sound of an entire legion rising for battle.

Messages and Premonitions

We set out across the road from the Principia to the Temple. Two condemned men, covered in bruises and escorted by armed guards would draw attention under any circumstances, but my master is a centurion and son of the former camp prefect, so every legionnaire, citizen, slave and shop keeper stared at us and whispered as we passed. 

Before we could even cross the road, a panting runner, a thin, young Spaniard, arrived with news that the water had finally been pumped out of the excavation and that the entrance of the sacred cave of the Batavians would finally be accessible as soon as the mud and detritus of years was removed. The Batavians themselves had set to work and crowded out the Roman slaves and engineers.The runner wanted to know if my master would have them order the Batavians out of the dig and take it over again or spend their time on more pressing preparations for the Emperor’s visit. If he noticed that we were both under arrest, he never revealed it, even with a sideways glance.

"Let them dig. Move the workers to help with the review stand and the arches." My master, for his part, acted as if there was nothing unusual about his entourage.

When the runner continued on, we stepped across to the steps of the temple.

My master said, “I want you to show me what happened.”

"What do you hope to find here?"

"I don’t know, but it seems like a good place to start."

A gaggle of gossiping citizens stood a little away from the steps, watching us and whispering to each other. “Defiler!” One of them called. I couldn’t see who.

Inside, the sun now shown brightly between the columns as if the great statue of Father Zeus stood in a grove of pale-trunked trees. A young priest burned incense at the feet of the statue and prayed loudly. Two slaves scrubbed at the floor on hands and knees. Despite the buckets of water and diligent scrubbing, blood still stained the stone of the floor until it was the color of loam, but the blood of Flaccus was indistinguishable from the blood of the many animals which had been sacrificed here.

"Would you recognize the man who attacked you?" My master asked.

"He covered his face and wore dark clothing." I looked at the scratch across my master’s left cheek. Could it be deep enough? Was it the one I made with my dagger? The man I had wrestled had seemed more burly and heavy, possibly taller than my master, but that could have been fear swelling my attacker only in my mind. If it was my master who killed Flaccus, then I was doomed regardless, but I couldn’t imagine that he had done it. I knew this man. I could see him killing out of necessity, face to face and in public, but I couldn’t imagine him murdering a man in the dark, wearing a mask. "I think we can distinguish the killer by a mark I made on his face with my dagger."

The guards perked up at this and looked to the scratch on my master’s face as well.

I hurried to add, “I cut his cheek so deep I think it must have been all the way through to his teeth. Fair payment for that scratch his friends gave you.”

I could see the face of the nearest guard as he considered my words. Of course, I would have lied had it been my master who I had marked so, again, I had made worse with my mouth what mischief my hand had started. And to think, I once considered myself a modestly accomplished orator. The Augustine Emperor nailed great Cicero’s head and hands to the rostrum in the Roman Forum for his words. I might consider myself in good company. I rubbed my neck and tried to think of something besides nails, axes, sacks and apes.

My master said nothing further as we searched every corner of the temple. For what we searched, I don’t know. The guards followed our every step as did the eyes of the priest, although he pretended to ignore us.

When we stepped outside, the crowd had grown. Legionaries now stood guard at the door of the temple and on each road leading into the center of camp. The murmuring of the onlookers had turned into the angry growl of a beast, waiting for a chance to gnaw its victims.

Only after we had walked well beyond earshot of the crowd did my master speak again.

"We should check on Panthia. Normally I would send you, but I think it best we stay together." He carefully cut his eyes to the side indicating the guards in a gesture only I could see.

Did he think they had secret orders, perhaps to kill us once we were in a private place? Why would Laevinus bother? With all the runners coming and going, he could have sent one of them to bring word of his family, so there was no need to go ourselves just to ask after their well being.

Thinking back, I can only imagine that he had some premonition in the temple of what might have happened at home. Perhaps Father Zeus gave him some assistance then. If so, it was the last time our familiar gods were any use at all. I’ve seen darker, greater gods now, and I’ll have nothing to do with them ever again if I can.

Long before we arrived at my master’s villa, we could hear the sound of wailing.

My master turned to the guards, forgetting or ignoring his situation. “With me!” He shouted and snatched one of their swords, setting off at a run for the villa door.

Used to following orders, the guards drew weapons and followed him.

They left me standing alone in the street. For a moment I considered making for the nearest gate. I wondered if I could make it all the way back to Athens before they caught me.

The wails sounded like my mistress. What would it take to make a barbarian princess wail so? I looked once toward the camp wall, then set off for the villa at my best speed.

Concerning Sacks and Apes

I dropped the dagger.

Many hands grabbed me. I would like to say that I cried out that I was innocent, but I was too stunned to speak before blows drove me to the ground.

Bound and bruised, I soon stood before Sextus Gracchus Laevinus.

The camp commander was awake much earlier than was his custom. His eyes were wormed with red, and his breath smelled of last night’s wine even across the room.

My master stood beside me between his own pair of armed guards to match mine. I was surprised to see that his eye was blackened and his lip split. There was a long scratch across his left cheek.

"Did you beat this man?" Laevinus asked one of the guards beside my master.

"No, Prefect. We found him on the ground between two buildings on the Via Principalis near the gate this morning. We were bringing the centurion home when we met the runner with the orders for arrest.”

"Why am I under arrest, Prefect?" Varus stood straight, his eyes directly ahead of him and fixed.

"Flaccus is dead. Your slave murdered him in the temple of Jove."

"No!" I cried out, this time prepared for my chance to explain. "I fought the man who—"

Sharp blows to the back of my knees and head drove me to the ground again. “Silence!” One of my guards shouted.

"Your slave had a dagger in his hand and was covered in blood. Flaccus was slaughtered at the alter like a sacrifice. They were the only two in the temple when Tubero found them. Under the law, you are responsible for your slave’s actions."

My master looked down at me. “Did you kill Flaccus?”

I drew my shoulders together against further blows, but answered, “No, master. There was a man in a black hood. We fought. I believe he killed Flaccus, but he escaped.”

My master nodded once when I mentioned the black hood, then his eyes narrowed when I mentioned fighting. “Why did you have a dagger?”

"My mistress ordered me to carry it secretly for your defense, master." I realized as I spoke that I was only making things worse. I should have said I found it or took it from the attacker. I cursed myself for a fool and looked to the ground to avoid my master’s eyes.

My master let out a heavy breath and his shoulders rounded. “Panthia.” He turned back to Laevinus. “Her people’s ways are different, Prefect. She only meant well. I believe Alexandros when he says he did not kill Flaccus.”

Laevinus looked from my master to me and said nothing for a moment. Then he waved the guards out of the room. “Leave these two to me for a word in private.”

"Prefect?" The nearest of my master’s guards asked.

"Do you doubt the centurion then, legionnaire?"

The guard managed to stand even straighter. “No, Prefect!”

"Good then, I’m sure I will be safe. Give him back his sword and leave us."

Once they were gone, Laevinus seemed to shrink, the wrinkles beside his eyes and mouth grew deeper. “Now, it’s just us. Please tell me that you ordered him killed, Varus. I will keep your confidence, and we will find a way to protect you and your family. Just tell me it was you.”

I stayed crouched on the floor doing my best to be unnoticeable. I imagined any outcome from this conversation would end in my death, one way or another. Romans had so many ways to end a convicted man’s life. I considered each of them and decided I would hope for being thrown from a high rock someplace. I couldn’t conceivably be related to Flaccus, thank Hera. For patricide and certain other crimes, the Romans would tie the convicted man in a leather sack with a dog, a rooster, a viper and an ape and throw the sack in a river. Did they keep things like apes and vipers handy? I had never seen any here in Lower Germania. I wondered if it might gain me some time while they sent for an ape if I claimed Flaccus was my uncle by an indiscretion.

"I did not kill Flaccus or order him killed, Prefect." Varus spoke quietly, but his voice was hard. "I believe Alexandros. You know it sounds just like Panthia to want him armed. I was also ambushed by men in black hoods on my way back from the roadwork this morning before first light."

I rose to my knees in surprise, grateful to have something to think about besides apes and vipers.

"A Roman citizen is dead, not just a citizen but a Patrician, a former Senator and the Legatus in command of the First Minerva Legion. I don’t care who killed Flaccus, but I want someone in irons." Laevinus drew himself up, and his voice boomed. "Find me a murderer before the Emperor arrives or, by Minerva’s perfect hymen, I’ll have you in irons for it yourself."

Laevinus waved us out, and I rolled over to better come to my feet without the aid of my hands which were still bound behind my back. It was painful with my bruises and my long suffering knees which have together seen twice again as many winters as the mind that drives them, but I didn’t want to give the Prefect time to reconsider.

I had been working the ropes all this time and they were nearly off. With the guards outside the door and the Prefect watching, I had to hold them carefully lest they fall.

Leavinus followed us out the door. “These guards will go with you.” To the guards he said, “If they haven’t found the murderer by sunset bring them to me.” He then turned to one of his servants. “Send to the quartermaster for a viper and an ape from legal supplies, and make sure they’re lively.”

Romans.

Ambush

The men who attacked my master on his way to the gate that night wore black hoods of cloth with holes for eyes. So I was told later.

I knew nothing of hoods or attacks in the night when I woke to the brightening sky and hurried to speak to Tubero. The roads of the fortress were so familiar and straight that my feet required little help from my tired eyes to find the way along the Via Principalis to the Via Praetoria and then to the Via Decumana to the villa of Flaccus. More than once I had to step quickly to avoid a cart or a speeding messenger. The first light had barely lightened the sky. Even so, I had already missed Tubero. A house servant told me that he was with his master at the Temple of Jove to sacrifice a white bull at dawn, so I retraced my steps back to the Praetorium at the center of the camp where the Temple of Jove stood across from the camp administration building.

A small crowd had gathered there for the sacrifice. There was quiet conversation and occasional laughter at the expense of  Tubero who slapped at the creamy white flanks of a bull which filled the doorway of the temple. The bull was too wide for Tubero to get in front of it and too disinterested to move out of the way. Tubero’s long neck corded with the strain and his face was red with effort as he pushed at the bull.

"It’s a wonder that beast hasn’t kicked you over the camp wall," I said as I joined him at the top of the steps.

"Lazy." Tubero panted. "Smelly." 

Taking pity on the poor man, I drew him back from the doorway and used my sash as a whip to urge the bull into the temple with noisy cracks above its back. Eventually, the creature moved far enough inside that I was able to climb past it without being crushed and take control of a cord leading to a ring in his nose. Without my sash to hold it, I was forced to carry my dagger in my hand, but used the cloth of the sash to hide it fearing questions about why a slave would have such a weapon.

The bull balked until I tugged harder on the nose ring into the lamp lit temple where Jove, five times as tall as a man and carved in stone as white as the bull, sat staring out over the commotion with an expression very similar to the animal he would soon receive. For a moment, I wondered if the old rascal had to dodge being sacrificed to himself when he took the form of a bull to woo Europa, and this led me to wondering what kind of a maiden would find a bull attractive. My wandering mind and the flickering lamplight kept my tired eyes from recognizing the bundle of white and red cloth at Father Jove’s feet for what it was.

I also did not notice the black shadow which dropped on me from above until its weight fell across my shoulders. The bull, wide-eyed and quivering, snorted and threw its head back yanking the rope from my hands.

"Hold onto it, curse you!" Tubero shouted from the doorway, still blocked by the animal’s rump.

The weight of my attacker pressed me to the ground. He wore a black hood with holes for his eyes and his grip was powerful where he pulled one arm behind my back. I saw a glittering black blade from the corner of my eye as he raised it for a killing stroke.

I spun myself around under him, following my arm as he pulled. My shoulder wrenched in its socket, but I freed my other arm. The arm with the sash. The arm with the dagger.

I lashed out. I missed his throat and instead cut through his hood feeling the blade bight deep into his cheek and scrape on bone.

My attacker cried out and drew away dropping my arm, leaving me enough room to escape from his hold.

Beside me, the bull’s eyes were ringed in purest white and rolled in their sockets.  It pawed at the ground. Its nostrils flared even at the blood smell in the air.

My attacker rose and hesitated, looking from where I knelt, dagger raised in my good hand with my other arm hanging useless, to the bull which tossed its horns and lowered its head. With a hand to his face, the hooded man leaped into the shadows between two columns and out the side of the temple into what remained of the morning twilight.

The terrified bull chose that moment to charge me.

I fled in the opposite direction from my attacker and hid behind a column as the bull smashed into the stone. The column moved. I thought the temple would fall.

Tubero screamed. He had finally made it into the temple. He stood over the bundle of rags at Jove’s feet. “Murder! Oh Murder!” His master Flaccus had been split like a pig opened for augury.

The bull whirled and charged again, but instead of goring Tubero, it escaped out the doorway scattering those who had converged on the door at Tubero’s shout.

I describe all of this confusion in the hopes it might be easier to understand my lapse of judgment as I stepped from behind the column and ran to Tubero’s aid.

It wasn’t until I saw him throw up his hands to protect himself, until I heard the shouts from those in the crowd who had finally made it through the door, until I looked down at the bloody dagger and blood-drenched sash in my hand, until Tubero shouted “Murder” again, that I understood. 

"Murder!" Tubero pointed at me.

Family Matters

The sun burned low in the sky, wreathed in wisps of smoke from cook fires and sacrifices at one temple or another. Soon, every temple and shrine in camp would be burning offerings in celebration of the arrival of the Emperor. The Romans honor nearly as many gods as my Athens, the average legionnaire is as likely to sacrifice to Mithra as Mars, the Batavians worship their old gods in Roman clothing and called the figure Hercules Magusanus, the Young Old One. For official occasions however, Romans always go directly to Father Zeus, confident that their concerns are his chief interest. Though our empty stomachs clenched, and our mouths watered for the delicious smells, my master, Varus, and this faithful slave made our way to the camp gate.

Slaves and legion runners rushed about, each with urgent messages as the camp made hasty preparations for the early arrival of the Emperor. Several of the runners stopped with reports for Varus. The review stand was nearly complete. Several wooden arches were ready for the arrival procession, but there wasn’t enough paint to decorate them. The Batavians had patched the dike, and the crew there had drained the water ahead of schedule, but the mud had refilled the carefully excavated entrance to the sacred cave the Batavians had petitioned Rome to restore. Scores of cosmetic repairs before the inevitable inspection of the headquarters and barracks were progressing with only small delays.

My master resolved these issues and others until our shadows stretched out beside us. Having expected this, I carried an oil lantern against the coming darkness.

“Ave.” Sabinus saluted as we approached the rough ditch where the main road had been only that morning. Twenty soldiers and half again as many slaves, all stripped to the waste even in the cool air, toiled to fill it back with alternating layers of stone and gravel.

“Vale,” Varus replied. “What’s this?”

“We plan to work through the night, just as you ordered, Centurion.” Sabinus himself was covered in dust.

“But you are still repairing the road; my instructions were to fill this hole with dirt.”

“Respectfully sir, the Emperor is not going to march a visiting legion into my camp over a dirt filled ditch.”

“If it’s not filled by morning, the Legatus will stuff it with our corpses.”

“It will be finished before dawn, sir.” Sabinus grinned. “I would hate to get the Legatus’ hands dirty.”

Varus slapped Sabinus’ arm, raising a cloud of dust. “I will come relieve you on the second watch.”

The lantern felt heavier in my hand. It would be me who would have to remain awake through the first watch to wake the master—a late night to follow a long day.

We climbed from the ditch to the smooth stones of the main military road. Every few paces along each side of the road a small hole marked where the corpse of a thief had hung on a cross or the head of a murderer had decorated a pole. This emperor had made it known that he despised torture, so the perplexed legionnaires had dutifully removed the visible signs of Roman justice. We turned after a short while onto a winding pair of ruts. The cart path cut through mud and around stumps to a village of steep-roofed huts made of wood and daub and thatch. The huts huddled around a raised knoll on a bend of land which jutted into the river, a location better suited to defense and smuggling than convenience.

Called “Market on the Water” in the incomprehensible language of the inhabitants, the place was usually a bustle of late night commerce, but that evening there was no one outdoors. The residents seemed to be making a deliberate show of disinterest in Roman things, no doubt following prince Drutmund’s example.

Though his father, Baudulf, lived in a fine villa within the walls of Castra Bonnensis as befit a chieftain loyal to Rome, Drutmund, his son and heir, made a show of living in more traditional lodgings.

Baudulf ruled the Ubii with the permission and support of Rome.

Drutmund ruled the smuggler’s underworld with no one’s permission at all. Through a long standing compromise with Imperial law, Drutmund did not smuggle weapons and legionaries enjoyed a discount on fine wines, tools and metalwork passed hand-to-hand from all parts of the Empire and beyond.

Two long-haired guards loitered outside the long hut where Drutmund lived and traded.

“My master wishes to see prince Drutmund.” I tried first in Latin, then Greek. Finally, I resorted to hand gestures and repeating “Drutmund” more and more loudly.

When the guards tired of ignoring me, they pulled aside the leather door flap. Perhaps Flaccus and Drutmund were trading hospitality tips.

The interior was close and the air smelled of ashes and stale sweat. Circles of light spread by smoky lamps served more to cast deep shadows than to illuminate. Drutmund reclined across a Roman couch on a raised dais at the end of the hall. At his elbow, the remains of a meal spilled from a low table to the floor where two rat-thin dogs growled and fought over the leavings.

On seeing us, he brushed crumbs from his beard and waved my master over. “Well you are here, speak, speak.”

“Prince Drutmund, Panthia sends her regards.”

“Panthia. My sister’s name was Gasthild until she met you, Varus. Now she has a Roman home and a Roman name to go with the little Roman in her belly.”

“Our child will be both Ubii and Roman, Prince Drutmund. It is a new age for both of our people now that Lower Germania is a province.”

“This child does mark a new age. You and I can agree on that if little else. Have you come to talk about tiny sandals and midwives then?”

“I went to speak to the Legatus today about guaranteeing our family estate for the coming census, a desirable thing I believe you would agree? He refused me and said that I should ask you the reason why.”

“Flaccus.” Drutmund snorted. “In some ways he is the most Roman man north of your glittering city on its hills.”

“Can you tell me what he meant by sending me to you?”

“Your embarrassment, I suspect. I did ask him not to interfere in a family matter. Might we also agree that his patronage has done you harm where you had hoped for aid in then past? Would his help now be any different? Our families are too connected now. I will not be indebted to a man like Flaccus.”

“Then you have some alternative in mind? The census is approaching and without money or the help of the gods, we will lose the status my family has maintained for centuries.”

“You have so little faith in your gods, Roman? Perhaps you need some new ones. If you cannot trust them, then trust me. The status of our family, yours and mine, will rise higher than you could imagine soon.”

With that cryptic assurance the barbarian prince dismissed us.

I borrowed fire for my lantern and led my master home to rest before his watch with the road crew. My misgivings about Drutmund grew greater as I considered his words. My master said nothing, but his brow was deeply creased through the long walk home.

Signs and Portents

"My master will see you shortly." Tubero said to Varus. Tubero had been in charge of the household slaves for Flaccus for as long as I had served my own family. His lumpy, misshapen head bobbed on top of a too thin neck even when he was otherwise still.

My own master had stopped to change into a fresh tunic and sandals, sending this aging, yet still fleet of foot, personal slave, to request a meeting with Tuberos’ master. His tunic was clean, but still I caught a whiff of river mud from time to time. He met my eye and I touched my nose. He sighed and stood as tall as he could. Perhaps Flaccus wouldn’t notice with all of the incense around the house and the patrician’s own personal habit of wallowing in perfumed butter.

Time passed.

The wait was precisely long enough to remind my master of his station. Romans.

"The younger Varus!" Flaccus swept into the room in a swirl of fabric and perfume. "How pleasant to see you."

"Legatus." Varus saluted.

"Is this an official visit then?"

"No, Legatus."

"Please then, none of that military formality here at home, our families have been friends for far too long."

Varus relaxed his posture only slightly. “Thank you for seeing me on such short notice, Patron.”

"My service to the people is my greatest joy, young Varus." Gauis Valerius Flaccus Teppo, patrician, priest and legate in command of the First Minerva Legion, was according to rumor, the wealthiest man in Gaul. He had been the official patron of Varus’ family since before Varus was born. Flaccus had been away, a senator in Rome for many years, but had come back to take command of the legion two years before. "How may I help you?"

"I’ve come about the census."

"Yes almost upon us, just another few months. I’m hoping this will show the empire that we have need of much more infrastructure. Lower Germania is not a frontier anymore."

"We all hope you are right, Legatus, but my concern at the moment is with the requirements for renewal of my family’s rank as equites."

"The estate requirement? Surely you will be fine. You have a fine home, servants, orchards and farmland."

"Most of which we set as collateral against the investment you insisted we make into your tax collection auction. You needed an eques partner to bid, and we supported your offer with our name and our funds."

"It was a good opportunity, and I certainly appreciate the loyalty of your family—"

"Good opportunity? That scoundrel Lucretius vanished with every sesterce."

"I also lost considerable money in that transaction. I can appreciate your frustration."

"We don’t have enough of an estate left to make the census requirement. I’ve come to ask for your help."

"I can certainly put a word in with the Governor Pollio. Perhaps he can—"

"I’ve come to ask you to stake us for the twenty thousand denari we are short."

"Twenty thousand? I can hardly just hand over an amount that large as a loan."

"I’m not asking for a loan. I am only asking for a letter stating that you will support our estate for that amount. After the census we can tear it up."

Flaccus rubbed his chin in thought. “Follow me.” He led Varus through the door to a courtyard and a small shrine to Father Zeus, whom the Romans call Jove. On a stone altar lay a freshly slaughtered pig. Flaccus picked up the ceremonial dagger beside the pig and cut its gut open with practiced precision. He reached inside and pulled out the entrails. “How is Panthia,” he asked as he teased apart the intestines and other organs.

"She is doing well…" Varus paused. Flaccus was obviously performing an haruspicy or augury, possibly to decide if the loan was a wise idea. But now in only a short time the man had changed his roles from Legatus, to patron and now priest. Varus visibly struggled with how he should address him. He settled on "Patron."

Flaccus nodded and grunted something. He rummaged for another moment then seized the pig’s liver and lifted up one of the lobes. “The child.”

"Yes, Patron?"

"A boy. Your child will be a boy and…" He lifted up the heart. "He will posses terrible strength and resolve."

Varus took a deep breath. I kept my eyes averted. It is not wise to question the will of the gods, but I could not help
but feel that Flaccus was avoiding answering my master’s question. “That is welcome news, patron. Thank you for reading the signs, but what about the letter of support?”

Flaccus raised his hands and Tubero rushed over with a clean cloth and water bowl. “Not possible.” Flaccus wiped his hands. “Please give my regards to your father and mother, and talk to Drutmund. He can explain the way of things.” He headed toward the private end of the villa leaving Tubero to show Varus and I door.

"I wonder what I could learn by reading his entrails," my master muttered under his breath.

Tubero started, but once we reached the door to the street, I thought I saw the hint of a grin at the edge of his mouth as he turned to go back into the villa.

"Why Drutmund?" My master asked, his voice barely loud enough for me to hear.

"I don’t know, Master." Panthia’s brother was a powerful man in the local black market and heir to Baudulf, chieftain of the Ubii tribe. But he wasn’t likely to vouch for the shortfall, in fact he owed my master money. Was he somehow involved with Flaccus?

"Jove protect me from priests and tradesmen," my master said much more loudly.

I didn’t need pig entrails to know talking to Drutmund could only lead to trouble.

Sabotage

Bright Helios drove his chariot into the sky and flung his glittering spear across the waters of the Rhine into the eyes of my master, Decimus Quinctius Varus, Engineer, Knight of Rome, Centurion in the First Minerva Imperial Legion.

This was the summer that the Emperor Hadrian came to inspect the defences in Lower Germania. On my master’s last happy day in the human world, he shielded his eyes against the sparkling waters. The same waters had overflowed the restraining dike and flooded his work site completely. “Jove’s hairy piles! All of this since last night?”

Publius, one of the youngest legionnaires in the engineering cohort, was covered in mud himself and out of breath from manning a pump on the riverbank. “Since just before dawn, sir. The guards almost drowned trying to fill the gap in the dark.”

Varus tightened his belt and waded into the water. “Go down the bank to where the Batavian auxiliaries keep their boats and find Baldus. This dig is for his people in the first place.”

“Yes, Sir!” Publius saluted and sprinted down the road.

“The rest of you, off those pumps and come around to the dike from the outside.” Varus climbed out on the remaining section of the dike and directed his men as they gathered up wicker work panels and dropped them into the water on the outside of the dike. The pressure of the river pressed the panels flat and slowed the leak. Only then did he send men back to the pumps to begin undoing what the river had done.

By that time, Publius was back in the bow of one of the Batavians’ many-oared river boats.

“Wet yourself again, Varus?” Thick-chested Baldus, leader of the Batavian auxiliaries, was a scarred veteran half again Varus’ age, but he hung from the rail of the ship by one arm with no apparent effort.

“I’ve built you a Batavian bathhouse. You and your river hogs feel like a wallow?”

“A fair bath it is, and your hospitality is tempting, but a good host would offer us some wine.”

“Three casks enough?”

“Four, and we will have that leaky pool fixed by noon.”

“Done.”

Baldus and a dozen of his men stripped off their armor and dove in. The Batavians were famous for being the only troops in the world able to swim themselves and horses across a river in full gear without breaking formation, but even they were were not keen on cleaning mud fragrant with dead fish from from their equipment.

With the Batvians working the outer wall, Varus set his engineers to rigging a system of coiled ropes, cams and pulleys to rock the pump levers while horses pulled on the lines. He helped with the final rigging himself, and with the extra power, the pumps emptied out the pool much faster.

Varus stood in the water inside the dike wall, inspecting the breach and directing carts of stone, broken crockery and old brick to the Batavians working from the outside and the Roman engineers working from the inside. He was standing there still, up to his chest in murky water when Laevinus, prefect of Castra Bonnensis, called from the shore.

“Prefect.” Varus saluted, smearing more mud on his tunic.

“What happened here?” Laevinus kept well up the bank.

“A breach, Sir.”

“I see that. How could it have happened?”

“Perhaps there was a fault in my design for the wall.”

From the shape of the breach, even my untrained eye could see that someone had dug out the dike in two places, weakening an entire section. But Varus couldn’t tell that to Laevinius without proof. It was such a senseless act; why would anyone want the excavation to fail?

“I’ve just received word that the Emperor’s advance detail will be here in two days.”

The master and I made it to the bank to join Laevinus. “Two days? But the Emperor isn’t due for another month.”

“Plans change. He and his entourage are only one day behind the advance. How is your man Sabinus coming with the road repairs?”

“The worst section is finished, but he will need to know not to tear out the next section this afternoon.” Varus looked back at the men working the pumps. “I can have this drained by morning.”

“And how is Panthia?” Laevinus lowered his voice. He smiled. It stretched the crags of his cheeks into a mask of Bacchus, lewd, friendly and slightly inebriated even at this hour of the day.

“Her mornings have been better this last week. The baby kicks like a donkey.”

Laevinus leaned his head close. “I spoke to Varus senior yesterday, he asked me to put a word in for him with Governor Pollio about the census. I’m sorry, but I had to tell him I did not think that was a good idea.”

“You were right. The last thing we need to is to draw attention to our estate’s shortfall. I apologize, Prefect. My father should not have bothered you with my family’s private business.”

Laevinus gripped Varus’ arm. “Your father taught me everything I know about running this camp. It’s hard for him, letting go of the reins inside or outside the walls of his villa. I’m not as wealthy as Flaccus, but if your family needs anything, please let me know.”

“Thank you. We’ll find our way. We always do.”

“Good. Good.” Laevinus touched his nose and raised his voice. “See that you get that tunic clean before I see you again, Centurion.”

“Yes, Prefect!” Varus saluted.

Laevinus raised his chin and continued on his way with admirable balance.

Varus sent a runner to Sabinus. His second in command, Sabinus liked to get an early start, so there was little chance that the message would be in time to stop his crew from demolishing the last section of the main road into camp. That would be yet another crew working through the night on repairs for the Emperor’s visit. There would be no time for finishing touches.

“Your Hadrian is said to be a competent architect himself, Master. He will understand that a day is not a month,” I offered.

Varus watched the pumps work. “What would it be like, Alexandros, to build something that would inspire men for a thousand years?”

With the Emperor coming to inspect the Rhine fortifications, Varus had hoped his innovations in the wall and pump system would catch the eye of one of the legendary builders who traveled with him, or even the eye of the Emperor himself. With the family estate too poor to pass the test to remain equites, Knights of Rome at the next census, this build had been his best hope for a future for the Quinctius Varus family, for Panthia and for his child. He had expected to have more time. Right now his best hope was a soggy ditch, and his child might well be the first Quinctius Varus to be born a plebeian in over two hundred years.

In moments like these, a personal slave may be a mentor and a source of comfort. Had my master been a Greek, I might have discussed impermanence and the value of creation as its own reward. But Varus was a Roman. He could only estimate the value of things with a scale and a measuring rod, so I said, “Ask Socrates if it made the hemlock any sweeter to know that Plato would live on to lie about him.”

“If I die, don’t you dare write my story, you Athenian bastard.” He laughed, but it was short and ended with a tight jaw. “Go talk to Tubero, see if Flaccus will see me.”

So encouraged, my master finally faced the larger disaster, or so we thought at the time. He sent me to beg an audience with the man who was responsible for wrecking his family’s fortune in the first place, Gaius Valerius Flaccus Tappo.

Invocation

Sing to me, dear Muse, of that insufferable man who wandered wider on foot than brave Odysseus managed with his sturdy ship and sails. Remind me of the brave fool I served so long, who dared to kill gods and probably saved my very bones from being chewed by things at once more hideous than the eyeless vermin that live beneath moldering river stones and more terrible in their intellect than wise Socrates.

My name is Alexandros, and I became the tutor and slave to Decimus Quinctius Varus when he was thirteen years old. I remained his slave for twenty-two years. If he still lives, I suppose I may still be a slave, though he freed me in his last testament. If he re-appears on this side of the underworld I will ask him. If he returns to this world, it may mean we will all be slaves or a meal for the Lords of Medea Beyond the Gate.

I write this account at the command of Emperor Hadrian who has sent word through his confidant Antinous, who is neither a Greek nor a man at all, no matter that he may wear a human likeness. I have hopes that this means when I am done I will be allowed to leave this familiar villa, which has become my prison. I no longer care if I walk out or am carried, so long as they do not inter my bones here. A prisoner is no freer than a slave.

I will take the liberty as a freed man of using my master’s name in the telling of his story and of recounting what I believe Varus must have thought, as well as what he might have done in those moments, rare though they were, when I was not at his side. Please forgive any omissions  errors or exaggerations as the failing memory and wild speculations of an old man who has learned too much and would rather forget.

The story begins with betrayal.