The Silver Eagle - By Ben Kane
Chapter I: The Mithraeum
Eastern Margiana, winter 53/52 BC
A good mile from the fort, the Parthians finally came to a halt. When the steady crunch of boots and sandals on frosty ground ceased, an overwhelming silence descended. Quiet coughs and the jingle of mail fell away, absorbed by the freezing air. Darkness had not quite fallen, allowing Romulus to take in their destination: a nondescript cliff face of weathered, grey-brown rocks which formed the end of a range of low hills. Peering into the gathering gloom, the powerfully built young soldier tried to see what had brought the warriors here. There were no buildings or structures in sight, and the winding path they had been following appeared to come to a dead end at the cliff’s foot. Raising an eyebrow, he turned to Brennus, his friend and surrogate father. ‘What in Jupiter’s name are we doing here?’
‘Tarquinius knows something,’ grunted Brennus, hunching his great shoulders under his thick military cloak. ‘As usual.’
‘But he won’t tell us!’ Romulus cupped his hands and blew on them, trying to prevent his fingers and face from going completely numb. His aquiline nose already was.
‘It’ll come out eventually,’ the pigtailed Gaul replied, chuckling.
Romulus’ protest died away. His eagerness would not speed things up. Patience, he thought.
Against their skin, the two men wore cloth jerkins. Over these, standard issue mail shirts. While affording good protection against blades, the heavy iron rings constantly drained away their body heat. Woollen cloaks and scarves and the felt liners under their bronze bowl crested helmets helped a little, but their calf-length russet trousers and heavy studded caligae, or sandals, exposed too much flesh to allow any comfort.
‘Go and ask him,’ urged Brennus with a grin. ‘Before our balls drop off.’
They had both demanded an explanation from the Etruscan haruspex when he’d appeared in their fuggy barrack room a short time earlier. Typically, Tarquinius gave away little, but he had muttered something about a special request from Pacorus, their commander. And the chance of seeing if there was a way out of Margiana. Unwilling to let their friend go off alone, the pair also jumped at the chance of some information.
The last few months had provided a welcome break from the constant fighting of the previous two years. Gradually, however, their life in a Roman fort turned into a numbing routine. Physical training followed guard duty; the repair of equipment replaced parade drill. Occasional patrols provided little in the way of excitement. Even the tribes which raided Margiana did not campaign in winter weather. Tarquinius’ offer therefore seemed heaven-sent.
Yet Romulus’ purpose tonight was more than simple thrill-seeking. He was desperate for even the briefest mention of Rome. The city of his birth now lay on the other side of the world, with thousands of miles of harsh landscape and hostile peoples in between. Was there any chance he might return there one day? Like nearly all his comrades, Romulus dreamt of that possibility day and night. Here, at the ends of the earth, there was nothing else to hold on to, and this unexplained excursion might provide a sliver of hope.
‘I’ll wait,’ he replied at length. ‘After all, we volunteered to come.’ He stamped resignedly from foot to foot. Suspended by a leather carrying strap, his elongated oval shield, or scutum, swung off his shoulder with the movement. ‘And you’ve seen the mood Pacorus is in. He’d probably cut my balls off for just asking. They’re better freezing.’
A laugh rumbled in Brennus’ throat.
Short and swarthy, Pacorus was at the head of the party, dressed in a richly decorated jerkin, trousers and ankle boots, with a conical Parthian hat and a long bearskin cloak to keep him warm. Under the fur, a delicate gold belt circling his waist had two curved daggers and a jewel-hilted sword slung from it. A brave but ruthless man, Pacorus led the Forgotten Legion, the remnants of a huge Roman army defeated the previous summer by the Parthian general Surena. Together with Tarquinius, the friends were now merely three of its rank-and-filers.
Once more, Romulus was a captive.
It was ironic, he thought, that his life should be spent exchanging one master for another. First it had been Gemellus, the brutal merchant who owned his entire family – Velvinna, his mother, Fabiola, his twin sister, and himself. Falling on hard times, Gemellus had sold Romulus at thirteen to Memor, the lanista of the Ludus Magnus, Rome’s largest gladiator school. Although less casually cruel than Gemellus, Memor’s sole business was training