Sun. 17th May: Another excerpt from The Silver Eagle

I hope this keeps the tension up. Or maybe it’s just annoying! I’m aiming to have published the whole first chapter by the publication date of The Silver Eagle.

As I said before the last excerpt, DO NOT READ IF YOU HAVEN’T FINISHED THE FORGOTTEN LEGION!

The party of guards fanned out, planting their torches in specially placed gaps in the paving stones. An ash-filled ring fireplace was evidence that they, or others, had stood here before. Romulus was still amazed by the manner of Pacorus’ and Tarquinius’ disappearance. He had noticed the large, shaped slabs but not fully appreciated that they formed an entrance. Now, with the whole scene relatively well lit, Romulus saw the carved drawings on either side of the hole. Excited, he began to understand. This was a temple, to Mithras.

And Tarquinius seemed sure that something would be revealed inside.

Desperate to know more, he moved to follow the haruspex, but half a dozen Parthians blocked his way.

‘Nobody else goes down there,’ growled one. ‘The Mithraeum is hallowed ground. Filth such as you are not welcome.’

‘All men are equal in Mithras’ eyes,’ Romulus challenged, remembering what Tarquinius had told him. ‘And I am a soldier.’

The Parthian looked nonplussed. ‘The commander decides who may enter,’ he barked eventually. ‘And you two weren’t mentioned.’

‘So we just wait?’ demanded Romulus, his temper rising.

‘That’s right,’ replied the warrior, taking a step forward. Several of the others copied him, their hands falling to their quivers. ‘We all stay here until Pacorus says so. Clear?’

They glared at each other. Although the Parthians and the legionaries had now fought together a number of times, there was little love lost between the captors and captives. As far as the Romans were concerned, there never would be. Romulus felt the same way. These men had helped slaughter his comrades at Carrhae.

He felt Brennus’ arm on his. ‘Leave it,’ said the Gaul calmly. ‘Now’s not the time.’

Brennus’ intervention was a simple gut reaction. Over the previous four years, Romulus had become like a son to him. Since they had been thrown together, the Gaul had found his own tortured existence much easier. Romulus provided him with a reason not to die. And now, thanks to Brennus’ repetitive and unrelenting training, the seventeen-year-old was a skilful fighter. Tarquinius’ efforts meant that Romulus was also well educated; he could even read and write. It was only occasionally, when he was severely provoked, that Romulus’ temper got the better of him. I was like that once, Brennus thought.

Taking a deep breath, Romulus stalked off, leaving the Parthian smirking at his companions. He hated always having to back down. Especially when he had the chance of witnessing something so important. But, as usual, walking away was the prudent choice. ‘Why did Tarquinius bother dragging us along?’

‘Back-up.’

‘Against whom? Those miserable dogs?’ Incredulously, Romulus indicated the Parthians. ‘There are twenty of them. With bows.’

‘Bad odds, it’s true,’ shrugged the Gaul. ‘He doesn’t have anyone else to ask, though.’

‘It’s more than that,’ Romulus shot back. ‘Tarquinius must have a reason. We need to be here.’

Brennus turned his blond shaggy head this way and that, taking in the barren landscape. It was vanishing into the darkness of another bitter night. ‘I don’t know what,’ he concluded. ‘This is a godforsaken spot. Nothing out here but dirt and rocks.’

Romulus was about to agree when his attention was caught by two spots of light reflecting the radiance from the torches. He froze, squinting into the gloom. At the limit of his vision was a jackal, watching them. Motionless, only the creature’s bright eyes revealed that it was not a statue. ‘We’re not alone,’ he hissed delightedly. ‘There! Look.’

Brennus smiled proudly at the sharp observation. An expert hunter himself, he had missed seeing the small predator. This was becoming more common. Romulus could now follow animals over bare rock, possessing an uncanny ability to notice the smallest detail. The twig out of place, the blade of grass bent double, the change in prints’ depth when the quarry was wounded. Few men had such skill.

Brac had been one.

Old emotion welled up inside Brennus: grief that his young cousin would never have the chance to stand with him like this. Like Brennus’ wife, baby son and his entire Allobroge tribe, Brac was dead, massacred by the Romans eight years before. At exactly the same age Romulus was now. Trying to ease the sharp claws of his ever-present grief, Brennus shook his massive shoulders and silently repeated the Allobroge druid Ultan’s words. The secret prophecy that Tarquinius had somehow known.

A journey beyond where any Allobroge has gone. Or will ever go. And on Margiana’s eastern border, some four months’ march east of Carrhae and more than three thousand miles from Gaul, Brennus had truly done that. It remained to be seen how, and when, his journey would end. His attention was drawn back to the jackal by Romulus’ eagerly pointing arm. ‘Belenus above,’ Brennus breathed. ‘It’s acting like a dog. See?’

 

Strangely, the animal was sitting back on its haunches, like a hound might watch its master.

‘That’s the gods’ work,’ muttered Romulus, wondering what Tarquinius would make of it. ‘Has to be.’

‘You could be right,’ Brennus agreed uneasily. ‘Jackals are scavengers, though; they feed on whatever dead flesh is around.’

They exchanged a glance.

‘Men will die here tonight.’ Brennus shivered. ‘I can feel it.’

‘Maybe,’ said Romulus pensively. ‘But I think this is a good sign.’

‘How?’

‘I don’t know.’ Falling silent, Romulus tried to use the snippets that Tarquinius occasionally let fall. Concentrating on his breathing, he focused on the jackal and the air above it, searching for something more than his blue eyes could see. For an age, he did not move, his exhaled breaths clouding round him in a thick, grey layer.

Brennus let him be.

Intent on starting a fire, the Parthians were ignoring them.

At last Romulus turned away. The disappointment on his face was clear.

Brennus eyed the jackal, which hadn’t moved. ‘Couldn’t see anything?’

Romulus shook his head sadly. ‘It’s here to watch over us, but I don’t know why. Tarquinius would, though.’

‘Don’t worry,’ said the Gaul, clapping him on the shoulder. ‘There are four of us against twenty now.’

Romulus had to smile at that.

It was far colder where they were standing, but both felt more kinship with the jackal than with Pacorus’ men. Instead of seeking heat by the fire, they huddled down together by a large boulder.

In the event, it was that decision which probably saved their lives.

 

Tarquinius felt his pulse quicken as they descended the crudely formed earthen steps, which were easy to see thanks to Pacorus’ torch. The narrow staircase had been dug out of the soil, with timber joists to hold up the sides. Neither the commander nor his guard spoke, which suited Tarquinius. He used the time to pray to Tinia, mightiest of the Etruscan gods. And to Mithras, even though he never had before. Mysterious and unknown, Mithraicism had fascinated Tarquinius ever since he had heard of it, in Rome. The religion had only been carried there a decade previously by legionaries who had campaigned in Asia Minor. Highly secretive in nature, Mithras’ followers were sworn to uphold the values of truth, honour and courage. Rites of great suffering had to be endured to move between the levels of devotion. That was all the haruspex knew.

Of course it was not surprising to see evidence of the warrior deity here, in Margiana. This area was where the cult was strongest, perhaps even where it had originated. The discovery might have been in better circumstances though. Tarquinius smiled sardonically. He and his friends were under threat of immediate death. So it was time to be bold. With luck, the god would not be angered by a request made by a non-initiate, entering a Mithraeum in this unorthodox manner. After all, I am not just a haruspex, he thought proudly. I am a warrior too.

Great Mithras, I come with a humble heart to worship you. I beg for a sign of your favour. Something to placate your servant, Pacorus. He hesitated for a moment, and then dared all. I also need your guidance to find a path back to Rome. Tarquinius sent his prayer up with all the force he could muster.

 

The answering silence was deafening.

He tried not to feel disappointed – but failed.

Eighty-four stairs later, they reached the bottom.

A wash of stale air wafted up the tunnel. It was a mixture of men’s sweat, incense and burnt wood. Tarquinius’ nostrils twitched, and goose bumps formed on his arms. There was palpable power here. If the god was in a favourable mood, perhaps his divining skills did have a chance of being revived.

Half turning, Pacorus noticed his reaction and smiled. ‘Mithras is mighty indeed,’ he said. ‘And I will know if you are lying.’

Tarquinius met his stare. ‘You will not be displeased,’ he said quietly.

Pacorus restrained himself from saying more. Originally, he had been awed by Tarquinius’ ability to anticipate the future, and to pluck the solutions to overwhelming problems from thin air. Although he would not openly admit it, the Forgotten Legion’s initial successes in driving out the marauding tribes had almost exclusively been thanks to the haruspex. But some months ago, Tarquinius’ accurate predictions had dried up, to be replaced with vague, generalised comments. At first Pacorus had been unconcerned, but this had soon changed. He needed the prophecies because his position as commander of Parthia’s eastern border was a double-edged sword. While a huge promotion from his previous rank, it came laden with expectation. Pacorus relied on divine help just to survive.

Attacks by war bands from neighbouring lands had been frequent for some time. The reason for this was simple. In anticipation of Crassus’ invasion, all local garrisons had been emptied more than twelve months previously. King Orodes, the Parthian ruler, had diverted every available man to the west, leaving the frontier region with few defences. The nomadic tribes had quickly seized the opportunity to rape and pillage every settlement within easy reach of the border. Growing bold on the back of success, soon they were vying to carve up Margiana.

Pacorus’ mission from Orodes was simple: to smash all opposition and restore the peace. Fast. This he had done. But his very success jeopardised his position: the king was wary of any officer who became too effective. Even General Surena, the leader who had achieved the stunning victory at Carrhae, had not been safe. Nervous of Surena’s new-found popularity, Orodes had ordered his execution not long after the battle. The news kept officers such as Pacorus in constant uncertainty: eager to please, unsure how to proceed – and desperate for aid from sources such as Tarquinius.

Fear is my last psychological advantage over Pacorus, thought the haruspex. Even that had worn thin. Weariness filled him. If the god revealed nothing, he would have to come up with something believable, enough to convince the ruthless Parthian not to kill them all. But after months of stringing Pacorus along, Tarquinius doubted his imagination was capable of any more.

They walked in silence along a passageway constructed in the same way as the staircase. At length, it opened out into a long, narrow chamber.

Pacorus moved left and right, lighting oil lamps which sat in small alcoves.

As light flooded the room, Tarquinius took in the paintings on the walls, the low seats on each side and the heavy wooden posts supporting the low roof. Inevitably though, his eyes were drawn to the end of the Mithraeum, where a trio of altars was positioned below the dramatic, brightly painted image of a cloaked figure in a Phrygian cap crouched over a kneeling bull while plunging a knife deep into the beast’s chest. Mithras. Stars glittered from his dark green cloak; a mysterious figure bearing a flaming torch stood witness on each side of him.

‘The tauroctony,’ whispered Pacorus, bending his head reverently. ‘By killing the sacred bull, Mithras gave life to the world.’

Behind him, Tarquinius sensed the guard bowing. He did the same.

Slowly Pacorus led the way to the altars. Muttering a brief prayer, he bent from the waist. ‘The god is present,’ he said, stepping aside. ‘Let us hope he reveals something to you.’

Tarquinius closed his eyes and gathered his strength. Unusually, his palms were sweaty. Never had there been an occasion where he needed help more. He had made momentous predictions before now, many of them, but not under the threat of immediate execution. And in here, there was no wind, no cloud, no flocks of birds to observe, not even an animal to sacrifice. I am alone, the haruspex thought. Instinctively, he knelt. Great Mithras, help me!

He looked up at the godly figure depicted above him. There was a knowing expression in its hooded eyes. What can you offer me? it seemed to say. Other than himself, Tarquinius had no answer. I will be your faithful servant.

He waited for a long time.

Nothing.

‘Well?’ demanded Pacorus harshly, his voice echoing in the confined space.

Desolation swamped Tarquinius. His mind was a complete blank.

Furious, Pacorus uttered a few words to his guard, who instantly moved closer.

This is it, Tarquinius thought angrily. Olenus was wrong in thinking I would journey back from Margiana. Instead, I am to die alone, in a Mithraeum. Romulus and Brennus will be slain too. My whole life has been wasted.

And then, from nowhere, an image seared his retinas.

Nearly a hundred armed men creeping in on a score of Parthian warriors sitting around a fire. Tarquinius’ skin crawled. Talking among themselves, the Parthians were totally unaware.

‘Danger,’ he blurted, jumping up. ‘There is great danger approaching.’

The guard paused, his knife still ready for use.

‘From where?’ demanded Pacorus. ‘Sogdia? Bactria?’

‘You don’t understand,’ cried the haruspex. ‘Here! Now!’

Pacorus’ eyebrows rose disbelievingly.

‘We must warn the others,’ urged Tarquinius. ‘Return to the fort, before it’s too late.’

‘It’s night-time, in midwinter,’ scoffed Pacorus. ‘Twenty of the finest men in Parthia are on watch outside. So are your friends. And nine thousand of my soldiers are only a mile away. What possible danger can there be?’

His guard leered.

‘They are about to be attacked,’ answered Tarquinius simply. ‘Soon.’

‘What? This is how you cover up your incompetence?’ shouted Pacorus, his colour rising. ‘You’re a damn liar!’

Instead of denying the accusation, Tarquinius closed his eyes and brought back the image he had just seen. Somehow he did not allow panic to take hold. I need more, great Mithras.

‘Finish it,’ Pacorus ordered.

Tarquinius could sense the knife approaching, but he remained still. This was the ultimate test of his divining ability. There was nothing else he could do, no more he could ask of the god. Cool air brushed Tarquinius’ neck as the guard’s arm rose high. He thought of his innocent friends above. Forgive me.

Carrying down the tunnel, the unmistakable sound of a man shouting the alarm reached their ears.

Shock filled Pacorus’ face, but he regained control fast. ‘Treacherous dog. Told your friends to cry out after a certain time, eh?’

Tarquinius shook his head in silent denial.

There was a long pause before the air filled with blood-curdling yells. Far more noise than two men could make.

Pacorus blanched. He hesitated for a moment, then turned and ran from the chamber, his guard close on his heels.

Rising, Tarquinius was about to follow, when he felt a surge of power.

The god’s revelation was not over.

But his friends were in mortal danger.

Guilt mixed with anger, and desire for knowledge. He knelt again. There was time.

A little time.

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