thefarthestlegion

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.”