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.”
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.”
“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.
“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.”
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. ***